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  • ISBN-13: 9780345411433
  • ISBN-10: 0345411439


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The bell tolls for island life

No man is an island, goes the prose; but with this charming, subtly premonitory and often disarming book, we are un-Donne. According to Thurston Clarke, author of Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands, there are those among us who have an innate affinity for islands - as refuges from personal or material intrusions, as Gaugin-like paradises of sex and simplicity, or as boundary-free spiritual kingdoms.

Clarke calls it "islomania," and his own interest in the phenomenon, one that he has sympathized with since his childhood, is both objective and subjective. He wants "to account for a passion for islands that transcends cultures and centuries . . . why Chinese mythology places heaven on an archipelago of rocky islands, Green and Roman heroes inhabit the Islands of the Blessed, Christians built some of the holiest churches and monasteries on islands, and the reed islets of Lake Titicaca were sacred to the Incas." But he also feels a growing urgency to understand the phenomenon because "islands, like tropical rain forests, are an endangered geographical feature," threatened as much by the Global Village of mass culture as by global warming. "The longer I waited to discover why islands are so intoxicating, the greater the chance that their undefined and mysterious charms might vanish."

He has plenty of cases in point: Key West, where Clarke spent three summers in the '70s when it was "North America's answer to the Foreign Legion" and which is now a Hooters headquarters; Anguilla, where the best hotel "resemble[s] a Moroccan village and offered California cuisine"; Majuro in the Marshall Islands, which Robert Louis Stevenson once called "the Pearl of the Pacific," but which 40 years of American trusteeship has turned into a "Pacific Appalachia of rusty pickups, plywood shacks and outhouses"; and Bainbridge Island, which Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson says has become "a neurotic place like anywhere else in the world."

So Clarke finally settles on visiting three groups of islands: those that fulfill certain roles (a holy place, a prison, a utopia, etc.), those that have personal resonance (Campobello, the Scots Isle of Jura), and famous islands, including Bali-ha'i (or at least, the one believed to have inspired Michener's special island), Atlantis (for which he travels to the Maldives, thought by scientists to be in imminent danger of drowning in the rising oceans), and Isla Robinson Crusoe, 400 miles off the coast of Chile.

The Crusoe Island, actually Ms a Tierra, is where a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk was marooned from 1704 to 1709; it is generally accepted that Defoe read the resulting stories about Selkirk and used them in the creation of his book. It is home to only about 200 residents, and Selkirk's cave is a major tourist attraction (the natives usually call him "Crusoe" - the fiction has overtaken the fact.) It's a good introduction to Clarke's search for the paradox of islands. Here he finds residents who consider its harsh outcroppings and wild birds beautiful, who value its "safety" from the wicked world and love the fact that they can only see water all around. And there are also the ones who come seeking perfect isolation and then find it awful and disturbing.

One of the most peculiar episodes retells Clarke's sojourn on Banda Neira in the Spice Islands, those once golden isles that lured traders and navies from around the globe. Here he surrenders to the considerable charms of the ebullient Des Alwi, a sometime freedom fighter and political operative turned filmmaker, developer, philanthropist and cultural messiah. Des Alwi's peculiar movie-idol hold over his countrymen is played against the memory of a 17th century Dutch massacre of thousands of Bandanese. Clarke's portrait of one of the last Dutch plantation owners, a virtual Miss Havesham dependent on Des Alwi's handouts, seems a cheap form of revenge. Still, the avaricious consumption of small countries by larger interests is a real and vital thread in the history and the mystery of islands.

Chilean connection

Although Isla Robinson Crusoe is 400 miles west of Chile's wine region, it's impossible not to think of that country's muscular and increasingly accomplished vintages when considering the myth of the marooned man. Miguel Torres' 1997 Manso de Velasco cab ($24) is just like an old copy of Crusoe brought down from the attic: leather and must and a hint of fading and browning as you ease it open, but then layers of fruit and tobacco and wild berry resins come pouring out, defiant and then smoothed and with a final flourish of roasted coffee. Don't wait for Friday.

Eve Zibart, who is the restaurant critic of the Weekend section of the Washington Post, has her own special island off the coast of South Carolina.

 
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