The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl
I read Kon-Tiki a while back, because I love a travel adventure story. I discovered then that Heyerdahl’s theories about white bearded men civilising South America (a millennia or more before the Spaniards arrived) and that they could be the ones who colonised Polynesia were… um… problematic. I bought The Ra Expeditions before I knew that. I have chosen still to read it because I was interested to see exactly how he would go about tying ancient Egypt into these racial theories about just who settled and civilised where, and also because I wondered whether his ability to tell a good adventure story was a one off. Please keep in mind that I am an over-educated middle class white lady with a lot of historical knowledge and a sufficient amount of knowledge about literary theory, narrative structure, and so on that a) I wasn’t directly in the firing line of Heyerdahl’s period-appropriate (?) racism, b) I was able to read this critically in terms of history and construction. I have the same reservations about this book as I did about Kon-Tiki: it is a genuinely exciting adventure story, because getting to the point of building a reed boat to carry seven men (!) across the Atlantic (!!) is incredible; it’s also chock-full of problematic ideas about race and history. Personally, I found it fascinating to see what ideas existed in the 1950s about cultural dispersion etc, in the same way that reading about people laughing about plate tectonics or that there might be more to the universe than just our galaxy is fascinating. If you’re not in a place to read around the racist stuff – or you’re of Polynesian descent, or South American – then avoid this resolutely.
So the actual account of getting the boat ready – of finding places and people who still make reed boats, of getting everything together in one place (builders from Chad, reeds from elsewhere, and then setting up in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Giza) is legit a fascinating story of who knows who, ambassadors helping out, meeting U Thant, and uh dodging border security at one point (not great). And as with Kon-Tiki, the story of life on board – the storms, the drama, learning how to actually sail the darn thing, the adventures of a baby monkey they were gifted (uh…) – it is all gripping stuff. I’m also impressed that in the mid-50s, they manage to have seven men from different parts of the world represented: from Chad, from Egypt, from northern Europe, southern Europe, South America, the USA, and a Russian. So that was impressive, although I do wonder whether they really did manage to be quite so idyllic in their political discussions. (Heyerdahl is open about there being occasional arguments about personal living space and so on, but is adamant that there were no religious or political arguments at all.)
What I would love to read is an expurgated version. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but the bits where he’s discussing “the diffusionist” view that somehow there was contact between Egypt and South America because all the points of cultural similarity are just too much to be coincidence, and that the (uh…) ‘savages’ who crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas couldn’t possibly have come up with pyramids etc themselves… yeh, those bits are just too old, now, and too hard to read. The adventure is still worth reading, though! Someone else should do the work to give me “the good bits version”.
I have the final Heyerdahl book to read, too, about the Tigris expedition, but I’m going to give myself a spacer before I read that.
An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.
An anthology of travel and place writing published in the context of the pandemic? And one that’s not just all sentimentality about things from the before-time? And that’s starting from, sometimes going to, Wales? These are excellent things.
A sad thing is that this anthology was prompted by the death of Jan Morris, which I hadn’t heard about. I haven’t read much of Morris’ work but her little book focusing on Wales and her home there is absolutely captivating.
All of the authors here have a connection to Wales – some born there, some moving there. But not all of the essays are about Wales. Instead, there’s Brazil and Somalia, Venice and Paris and Japan, and Sapelo Island as well. Sometimes it’s because of partners from elsewhere, sometimes family who have migrated. Sometimes they offer reflections on one particular moment in a life, and sometimes reflections from a generation of experience and change. There are, of course, also essays set in Wales: like one about find green space to be calm and solitary while in a wheelchair; another about following the pilgrim way in the north on foot.
I don’t know anthologies like this very well, so it’s depressing although not surprising to learn that the range of authors – that they are not all male and able-bodied and white and young-but-mature – is something worth noting. It is, of course, the more enjoyable for this diversity of voices.
This was a delightful set of essays, and an example of how broad ‘travel writing’ can be. I hadn’t come across the idea of ‘place writing’ before reading the introduction but it occurs to me that that is, in fact, often what I enjoy reading. There are some wonderful examples of that genre here, as well as travel. And while it did make me slightly nostalgic for travel in the before times, that reality is different now – pandemic and climate change both contributing, not to mention political climate. I probably should look out for more books like this.
Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl
I do love a good adventure/ travel story, so when I saw this in a secondhand book shop I thought – why would I not read the book that as far as I can tell, arguably started the modern version of ‘person goes on crazy adventure and writes about it’?
I am… ambivalent, now, having read it. Basically one part positive, two parts negative.
Positive: it really is a riveting story. Six men in 1947 on a balsa wood raft, sailing from Peru to Polynesia. They have a radio and a sextant, and modern clothes and sleeping bags; but their raft is genuinely balsa wood, held together with rope. They have no particularly good way to steer. It’s made (apparently) as accurately as they could to match the descriptions from Spanish conquerors to the area. They truly have remarkable experiences, and they went 100-odd days crossing the Pacific. That is epic, as are their encounters with a whale shark, various other wildlife, storms, and just life in general. For that aspect, I don’t regret reading it.
The negatives… well. To start with the journey itself – no, even before. The description of cutting down massive old balsa trees for the construction of the raft had me cringing. Then there’s the seemingly-wanton ‘fishing’ while they’re at sea: they’re hooking and killing far more shark and other fish than they eat, which is just awful. (It is kind of hilarious to read of the flying fish just randomly landing on the boat, I will admit, and eating those makes sense – especially when they’ve been piling up throughout the night.) Also, Thor at least is married and… in the entire book, no mention of the wife. Ever. Not even before the journey, when he’s in America trying to convince people of his theories.
And, yes, here’s the rub, the sticking point, the main problem. Thor goes on this journey to show that it would have been possible for humans to sail from South America to Polynesia, and thereby be the progenitors of at least some of the people living in those islands, and therefore responsible for the impressive statues and pyramids and other ‘advanced’ things that can be found on some islands. But not the Inca, oh no, and not the Olmec, or anyone else you might have heard of: rather, it was a white, bearded race who apparently came before the Inca. And were more civilised, and taught them everything and then got chased off. So… yeah. His entire premise is deeply, deeply racist. This also comes out in descriptions of the Polynesians and others. I’m privileged because I’m white; if a person of native South American – anywhere on that continent – or Polynesian or, I’m afraid, Jewish descent said they were thinking of reading this, I would want to have a good long conversation with them so that they knew what they were getting into. This absolutely means the entire book is problematic, and being a ripping adventure yarn in no way excuses it. It is written in 1947, which offers some context for why Heyerdahl thought it was appropriate to write such things and the publishers apparently had no problem with it – hey, no Polynesian is likely to read it, amiright? and why would they complain even if they did? etc.
Did it have fun bits to read? Totally. Is the book problematic? Absolutely. Did I buy the other two books he wrote, to try and show that Egyptians AND Mesopotamians got to South America by boat? I absolutely did and fully intend to read them to rip the theories to shreds.
No, I am not learning French. I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
One of the reviews at the start of this book said “Move over, Peter Mayle” – as in the author of A Year in Provence.
To which I can only say: uh, no.
Look, this is an enjoyable enough story. I’ve just watched several episodes of a show where people buy a French chateau and renovate it, so clearly I like the genre of doing things like that. But the thing that Mayle did was very clearly situate himself within his village: while he takes part in many of the amusing adventures he recounts, he’s not necessarily the focus. Mayle makes it clear how much he loves the place and the people.
Now, Les Americains are admittedly different because they don’t live in their house; they come for maybe a couple of months a year. But the people they mostly interact with are other foreigners (a lack of French is a problem here, too), and the focus of the book is the relationship of the couple, and their own personal experience. It’s just not the same as trying to explain or explore a village to a readership who will never get to live there.
There’s also a “Lunch in Paris” vibe where the couple’s daughter, a chef, provides recipes for some of the food they eat. This is a nice aspect but the food never felt quite central enough to the story to make this feel like a compelling addition.
Did I finish the book? yes. Am I dying for more information about how this couple spends their holidays? No. And it might just be me but I find it hard to take seriously anyone who takes their pet overseas, and then acts like the pet is a human.