No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, June 08, 2009

#40: Galapagos -- Kurt Vonnegut

Why so many of us a million years ago purposely knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a shove in the right direction -- in the direction of smaller brains. (p. 208)


Galapagos is a tale from the far future, with ghostly narrator Leon Trout (son of the famous SF writer Kilgore Trout) looking back one milion years to events that occurred in 1986, when a cruise liner was shipwrecked on Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos Islands, changing the course of human history ...

The book's twistily non-linear, with random snippets of information dropped in all over the place: "on her eighty-first birthday, two weeks before a great white shark ate her". It's clear from the beginning that the Bahia de Darwin is doomed: what's less clear is how the wreck will happen, and how the various characters will be affected. (Vonnegut uses a star before a character's name to indicate that they'll soon be dead: this mutes the dramatic impact, but adds to the feeling of arbitrary fate.

The passengers on board the ship aren't quite as elite as preliminary publicity suggests. There's a widowed school teacher; a blind teenage girl and her guide-dog; six young prostitutes of the Kanka-bono tribe who speak no English; a pregnant Japanese woman very recently widowed (her husband was an inventor of genius, and his latest invention, Mandarax, a simultaneous translation device with a library of world literature and a medical diagnosis app, ends up on Santa Rosalia too); and the ship's captain, Adolf von Kleist.

These people are the future of humanity.

Vonnegut makes much of 'big brains' and the ways in which humans waste and torment themselves, ruin their world and commit atrocities due to all that intellectual capacity. So much simpler, perhaps, if we evolved back into something more suited for catching fish, basking in the sunshine and being happy ...

Every character's story -- those who survive to reach the island, and those who don't -- is sketched in a handful of telling details. The Captain's brother is suffering from Huntington's chorea (luckily, the Captain is not a carrier); the Kanka-bono girls are on board because of an act of kindness by a pilot, and an act of cruelty by a tycoon; Hisako Hiroguchi's mother was exposed to radiation when Hiroshima was bombed; Selena's guide dog never barks.

There are so many details, and such a meandering structure, that it took me a while to notice what was missing: an account of the first days on the island. I don't think the book needs that scene: I think it's easily extrapolated from character and situation. But it seems an odd omission.

And I'm still thinking about Leon Trout, and his purpose, and whether this is some penance.

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