An Archipelago in Prose

Voyaging from Newfoundland to Devil’s Island, and Melville to King Kong

I was predisposed to like Island: How Islands Transform the World. For one thing, I remember with pleasure one of J. Edward Chamberlin’s earlier books, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, which was nominated for, but inexplicably did not win, the Charles Taylor Prize for best non-fiction book of whatever year it was. That book was a mix of lyrical prose, tight argument, omnivorous reading (and therefore quotation), appealing digressions, true moral indignation and more. I remember wondering why I had not read more of Chamberlin’s work, and set out to do so. For another thing, I have been something of a collector of islands myself, having co-written one book about an island (that curious dune in the Atlantic called Sable Island, which gets a glancing mention here) and having lived on, and travelled to, a number of islands around the world (my favourite being São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, interesting mostly because its first inhabitants were Jews, not native Africans—Jews exiled from Portugal for the sin of refusing conversion, and there are still vaguely Talmudic flavours in the stories of the region). Also, my wife has a house on Tancook Island, the setting for a novel that won the Canada Reads competition some years ago but that I thought crude and deeply condescending to the people of the island. I confess I was mildly disappointed that São Tomé did not make the cut here. But not surprised—Chamberlin has a rich catalogue of islands to browse, and he has done so, again with omnivorous reading, with erudition, a good eye for prodigies and curiosities of all kinds, and high intelligence.

The book is organized, if that is not too constricting a word, around five loose themes, each introduced by a specific island: Jamaica, whose theme is “settlers and storytellers,” including origin stories; Tahiti (Polynesia), whose twin themes are navigation and the idea of arrival; Iceland, whose governing theme is geology (plate tectonics and volcanism); the Galapagos, whose obvious theme is species differentiation (including some lovely passages on birds, and a nice digression on guano); and Newfoundland, whose given theme is “real, imagined and in-between” islands, which subsumes seafaring traditions, the literature of the sea (from Melville to King Kong), and island legends (including the Muslim view that Adam fell to the earth after his Lapse on a holy mountain called Sri Pada on the island of Sri Lanka—maybe everyone knows this, but it was news to me).

Some of these thematic chapters are more successful than others.

I found the first one the most difficult. The potted history of the Caribbean settlement was sound enough, and I learned much that I did not know. But its connection to the chapter’s theme remained elusive. All the digressions and allusions were themselves interesting, but clear segues were absent. Origin stories, yes, Atlantis yes, the early geographers and their valiant attempt to codify without data, yes, riffs on vagabondage, the Fortunate Islands, the impulse to go to sea, yes, all interesting, but the narrative line is vague. It worked best, I found, to treat this chapter as the literary equivalent of slow food—slow reading, savouring the bites rather than the menu—then I could better appreciate the phrases and the images: plants described as “portly,” the “jostle of island jealousies.” Listen to this: “Creation stories that begin with birds and turtles and firestones and fishhooks are not -mistaken explanations of historical incidents but true explanations of the human condition and of our very human wonder about the mystery of creation and destruction. Which is the mystery of islands.” And this on the following page: “beginning is marked by a difference: a new note in the scale, a new star in the sky, a new color on the canvas. A bang or a whimper. A line separating above from below, light from darkness, A spot of space or time. And, more often than not, an island.”

The Tahiti chapter has a tighter narrative line. The extraordinary exploits of the early Polynesian mariners are laid out with clarity and eloquence, and the chapter contains provoking accounts of early explorers, the inherent uncertainties of navigation in a pre-GPS world and more, including a useful exposition of the development of sailing technology and a derisive dismissal of early European views of the “primitive” Polynesians and how they could not possibly have done what they in fact did.

Chapters 3 and 4 (Iceland and the Galapagos) are the most successful. In the Iceland chapter, Chamberlin manages a difficult trick, to make geology appealing, something only Richard Fortey and to a lesser degree John McPhee have managed before. True, there is a merely cursory explanation of plate tectonics that, as Bertie Wooster would have said, fails to compel, but it is more than made up for by the passages on the origin of islands, on the early geology and history of land itself, and on the origins of life. The Galapagos chapter is even better, weaving Darwin, island flora and fauna, and a history of food cultivation into a coherent narrative, into which riffs on whaling, the date palm, seals, spices and even Robben Island are effortlessly slotted. A lovely read.

The Newfoundland chapter, not so much. There are good passages on the island itself, excellent expositions of the literature of seafaring, of piracy and smuggling, of whale hunting and more, especially of what Chamberlin calls unholy islands—Robben Island again, St. Helena, France’s notorious Devil’s Island prison, Fort Jefferson, Alcatraz and others. But the attempts to broaden the definition of island (perhaps to justify his subtitle, How Islands Transform the World) to include retreats such as caves and monasteries and moated castles I found unpersuasive. On pages 203 and 204, these island extensions include oases, waterholes in the desert, circles of stone and wood, mounds and mountains, Australia’s Ayer’s Rock and even psychiatry’s islanded personalities as “central images in modern social sciences.” I do not think so.

These passages are an attempt to give heft where there is none. This is the difference between If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? and this book. The earlier work had at its core a powerful idea—an examination of the ownership of land, of home, of the complex idea of home in a world in which diaspora is as common as rootedness, and in which wandering has been elevated to a high virtue, and it contained also a great if controlled anger at the idea of colonization and misappropriation of culture. Island lacks that driving force. Like the earlier book, it dances between ideas, the source of ideas, anecdotes and reminiscences, but more randomly. Still delightfully, but not so purposefully. Did islands really transform the world? I remain unconvinced.

Much is redeemed by the prose, and by some of Chamberlin’s sharply drawn sketches. I underlined a few passages: “Island is not a metaphor for home. Home is a metaphor for an island.” “It is one thing to dream or talk about traveling to islands across the sea. Actually doing so is something else, no matter what the circumstances, and it represents one of humanity’s most remarkable accomplishments and most extraordinary acts of faith. A covenant in wonder with the world. And a triumph of craft.” “Ravens scavenge wool from island sheep to line their nests, and screech and show off by flying upside down like trick pilots at an air show and bothering the eagles—who pretend they don’t notice.” To see Chamberlin’s skill with sketches, read the passage about the island called Skellig Michael, off the coast of County Kerry, in Ireland, “a monastic settlement … at the edge of human possibility; but it was surpassed by a hermitage built with uncanny skill and almost suicidal daring on a narrow pinnacle rising seven hundred feet above the sea.”

One of Chamberlin’s writerly tics is etymology. He cannot seem to use a place name without telling us its origin. At first, I found this annoying—many were obvious, after all—but after a while I got used to it, began to look forward to the next one, and learned a number of things I had not known. For example, that the “i” in island comes from the old Anglo-Saxon eig, and the Old Norse ey, meaning water. Swahili, I learned, meant “shore people”—I have written about the Swahili coast before, but I did not know that. Robben means “seal” in Afrikaans, that I knew (Afrikaans was my mother tongue, so I should have known), but that the verb “to maroon” comes from the Spanish word for wild, and that the Sri in Sri Lanka is an honorific, the equivalent of master, these I did not know. Lanka itself I have now tucked away into memory; it comes from an old word for land. And so on and so on. Relax and enjoy.

Along the way, there are a few minor missteps. For example, on one page Chamberlin is recounting the exploits of the Polynesian explorers: “the nautical technologies developed by the ancient Polynesian seafarers, still understood only in bits and pieces, allowed them to sail thousands of miles across the open ocean even against the westerly currents and the east-to-west winds (generated by the rotation of the earth toward the east).” Well no, not really. The winds are generated by convection, caused by temperature differentials between equatorial and subtropical regions, not by the earth’s rotation. True, they are deflected by the Coriolis force, itself a factor of the earth’s rotation, but their cause is quite different.

And, in the same chapter, Chamberlin is talking about the expansion of exploration in the sixth century BCE to the Hawaiian islands, Easter Island and eventually New Zealand: “About that time there came another round of climate change, this time apparently taking a more terrible toll. Nothing nourishes fear and loathing more surely than famine; and what we know from both the written records and the oral traditions of these islands gives us a grim sense of the crisis that was created when the sea level fell by almost three feet, creating food shortages, severe conflicts, and malevolent cultural practices.” I do not know what these “written records” are, or what they say, but famine is always more likely as the sea level rises, not falls.

In a later chapter, Chamberlin remarks that “the idea of islands as places of natural environmental balance needs some qualification—and so does the notion that everything bad that happens on islands is caused by people.” Fair enough, a necessary antidote to misty environmental sentimentality. He then mentions Easter Island: “even the standard story of what has been called Easter Island’s ‘environmental suicide,’ the poster child of catastrophic ecology and convenient explanation for the near-disappearance of its human population, is now being challenged on a number of grounds.” But he does not tell us what these challenges are, except to redefine human as natural, which does not help much, and to suggest that the supernatural, left undefined, might also have played its part. True, he does mention climate change and water level fluctuations, but advances no argument to suggest what part they played.

An editing quibble, not Chamberlin’s fault: the endnotes, his sources for the voluminous quotations scattered throughout the book, are laid out in a format apparently willfully designed to thwart any but the most fanatical nitpicker: to try to match quotation to source is a fruitless task. Maybe this is where those “written records” are, but if so, I could not find them.

And one more quibble: each chapter starts with a longish quotation from the Edinburgh Encyclopedia of 1830. The purpose is unclear. Sure, we learn facts, but archaic facts, and the prose, especially when compared to Chamberlin’s own, is leaden.

At the start of this review, I said I was predisposed to like this book. And I did. To adopt the curiously low-key advertising slogan for Alexander Keith’s beer here in Nova Scotia, “those who like it, like it a lot,” I liked it a lot. I think I would have liked it even more had Chamberlin dropped the rather portentous theme of islands transforming the world, and allowed us to relax with his endless fund of story, anecdote, observation and allusion, all more than worth the price of admission. I think the final paragraph is what his book is really about, without the hoo-hoo about transformation:

I wonder whether islands may be less an invitation to the faraway than to the near-at-hand, less an appeal to leave than an offer to stay. Which would make the question “What is an island?” close cousin to “What is home?” Home is where you hang your hat, or where your heart is. It is the place you come from, or where you are going. It is where you choose to live, or where you have no choice but to live. Maybe the same place, or maybe not. Just ask Noah, or the woman who fell from the sky, or Odysseus, or Robinson Crusoe.

That works, doesn’t it?