Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: The Arch of the Kerguelen

Posted by Kirk Mona
With cold winds once again blowing across the land I thought it was time to finally write a review of the book The Arch of Kerguelen: Voyage to the Islands of Desolation. I first cracked it open last winter. What I read was the 1993 translation of the work. The book suffers from some problems to be sure and I don't think they have anything to do with the translation.

Kauffman travels to the furthest, most difficult place to reach on earth and then shies away describing it to us in too much detail. He has a disdain for the scientists that work there that comes though clearly in the text and he goes out of his way to not describe the details of their work on the island. The scientists working on the island are the only inhabitants and their work reflects the unique nature of the place but he seems uninterested. More insight into why they are there would have enriched the narrative of his journey by better helping the reader understand the nature of the place. He is not particularly interested in the geology or ecology of the island either though they are arguably the most sensational and interesting aspects of the place. The only thing he seems to describe in detail and with poetic beauty is the ever present wind.

Another fault of the book is that while Kauffman seems engrossed in the history of the land he doesn't do a very good job of passing that history along to the reader. You can tell he has read everything there is to read on about the island and references these books frequently but largely assumes you will seek out those same books and read them yourself.

Kauffman was held prisoner in Beirut for three years before making the journey to Kerguelen and this probably shapes his desire to go to this desolate lonely place in a fascinating way but he makes no comparisons to the desolation and isolation of the island to his personal experience. This was a personal choice of his to be sure and he is free to remove himself from his writing to whatever degree he sees fit but it would have made the book far more compelling if he had been willing or able to let us into his personal experience more. The book fails as a personal tale as we gain little insight into Kauffman as a man. It fails too as a tale about Kerguelen as a place as we don't get as rich of a total picture as we wish we could get. I think Kauffman meant the book to be a story about a personal quest but to be truly successful and moving the author needs to be willing to fully open himself up to the reader. Kauffman either isn't willing or able to do that.

What Kauffman does do well is describe snippets of desolation. There are moments of brilliance in the book that make you viscerally feel the driving wind that pervades every moment of life on Kerguelen. These moments alone make the book worth a read. Reading the book on a wintery night I stood up and went to the window. A blizzard was raging to the north but we were being mostly spared.

It had rained earlier in the day and as night fell the light rain turned to a snow that hung in the air like fog. I could only see it as it drifted past street lights. No moon shone though the clouds and the world was lit with the eerie soft yellow glow of sodium vapor street lights. Across the street I could see a row of large trees, merely gray silhouettes against a background of nothingness. The book made me reflect on the world I live in and that's a positive thing. I just wish the book could have provided more. It is a worthwhile read as long as you are aware of the shortcomings up front. Kerguelen itself is a fascinating place, I just wish I felt I knew it better after reading this book.

In the end, what we are left with is a description of Kerguelen almost as strange as the place itself.