Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Ballantine Books, $24.95
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996-98)
ONLY RECENTLY HAVE I READ Robinson Crusoe for the first time. Crusoes book struck cords with me. Islands have a vast amount of cultural currency, as Thurston Clarke points out in his book, Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands, but one that has been filtered, at least for me, through the pop cultural lens. Its hard for me to distance Robinson Crusoe, for example, from television shows like Survivor, as kitschy as that may sound. Robinson Crusoe, after all, was also a popular cultural phenomenon, and one that probably inspired similar sensationalism and romanticism regarding islands and the experience of the marooned. Clarke offers a journey detailing what he calls islomania or the craze/love that some people feel towards islands.
Clarke carefully plans his trip to detail certain types of islands. He visits three categories of islands: islands that he is already familiar with, famous islands (including Mas A Tierra, the island where Robinson Crusoe was marooned), and islands that can be categorized (for example, scary islands, holy islands, private islands, among others).
The beauty of this undertaking is, in part, in the groundwork that Clarke does for the reader. Clarke does considerable research into the history of the islands that he visits. He does a laudable job of not only imparting it to the reader, but contextualizing what he has learned within his observations into the contemporary state of these islands. This is evident when he engages with the denizens of islands who have ancestral ties to the islands, or experienced clashes between the past and present. Clarkes description of Mas A Tierra, for example, includes the islands modern commercial ties to Defoes fictional character. The island itself has been renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe by the Chilean government. In a postmodern moment, Clarke begins to confuse Selkirk, the real life marooned sailor who the character of Robinson Crusoe was based on, and Crusoe.
Clarke, of course, has other agendas on his journey. Islands that still retain the qualities that lead to islomania are becoming an endangered species and Clarke is interested in exploring them before they are destroyed through commercial exploitation. His book, then, records the state of the islands at the time of his visits. Later, in his postscript, he mentions some of the changes, good and bad that have happened since then.
Aside from the colorful characters that he profiles and the poignant and serious tone with which he explores islomania, what I like most about this book was its ability to explain islands to a landlubber like myself. Clarke is able to translate his obsession with islands into a language that is understandable to a skeptic jaded by sensational modern representations. Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands, may not have converted me just yet, but quite possibly may have convinced me to begin a journey to explore islomania myself.
Paul Shovlin is an English instructor at Ohio University.