Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book review: "Kon-Tiki" by Thor Heyerdahl

Early in "Kon-Tiki," as Thor Heyerdahl and his compatriots are a assembling a make-shift raft to float across the Pacific, a government official calls Heyerdahl to his office.

"Are your parents living?" the official asks.

Yes, says Heyerdahl.

"Your mother and father will be very grieved when they hear of your death," says the official.

It was a reasonable assumption. What Heyerdahl and his five Norwegian friends were proposing was beyond audacious it was foolhardy, by any standard. Here were six young men, none with sailing experience, who were building their own Inca-style raft out of balsa logs and hemp ropes and planning to sail it across thousands of miles of ocean from Peru to the South Seas.

Surely, they would die.

Of course, they didn't. For over 100 days, the Kon-Tiki bobbed along like a cork in high and low seas making slow but steady progress before eventually landing the men on an island in French Polynesia. In doing so, Heyerdahl, an anthropologist, had made his case that it was possible that the South Sea islands had been populated by immigrants floating on rafts from South America.

It was a remarkable accomplishment, and while it is a tale imperfectly told, "Kon-Tiki" is quite worth reading.

This is a book where the events carry the writing. For the most part, Heyerdahl does an able job of presenting the story, but he curiously skips over some parts.

For instance, he doesn't explain clearly why he allowed the voyage to begin by having the Kon-Tiki towed out of port and many miles out to sea. After all, wasn't the point of the expedition to show that the raft could make it all the way on its own? (There may have been a good reason perhaps to avoid shipping traffic -- but he doesn't say what it is.)

Because the trip actually turned out to be easier than expected, the middle section becomes somewhat flat. The crew had plenty of fish to eat, and collected rain water to drink. They found ways to make the craft easy to steer.

Also, while Heyerdahl is detailed in his descriptions of the fish they saw while crossing the ocean, he fails to illuminate the personalities of his five crewmates. Even by the end of the book, I couldn't tell one from another.

These are weaknesses, yes, but hardly fatal ones, and the overall boldness of this adventure is what carries this book. There are exciting moments when one of the men falls overboard and is nearly lost, and when the Kon-Tiki dramatically crashes into a reef at the end of its voyage. And the crew's short stay on an island inhabited by just 127 villagers is memorable for its idyllic picture of the South Seas lifestyle.


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