Sunday 10 January 2010

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
I am thinking of adding another ongoing ad hoc challenge to read the works of Kurt Vonnegut. There are only 14 novels and then 10 collections of stories and essays. No time-scale involved, just because I have so much enjoyed the two recent ones, which seems as good a reason as any.
So I picked Galapagos up from Julie's shelf and it was my New Year reading.

The first thing I noticed was that the voice was the same, and coincidentally this book has a very similar theme to Cat's Cradle, the end of the world as we know it. The story of Galapagos is narrated by the ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout (the son of Kilgore Trout, a recurring Vonnegut character). He is reflecting on a million years of human evolution, that has taken place solely on the fictional Galapagos island of Santa Rosalia, all current homo sapiens being descended from a motley group of castaways who landed there in 1986. I was anticipating the story being about the Galapagos and what became of the castaways, but I guess that he used this location for it's symbolic value, it being the place that gave rise to the ideas about evolution. The story is really about the complex background history of each of the characters and how they all make their way to Guayaquil (the main sea port of Ecuador)and then on to the cruise ship the 'Bahia de Darwin', which was supposed to be making a maiden voyage to explore the Galapagos Islands, and ends up saving the human race.

So our main contenders are Mary Hepburn, who's husband died some months ago but she comes on the cruise anyway; Zenji Hiroguchi, a computer wizz, and his pregnant wife Hisako; Selina McIntosh (and her seeing-eye dog Kazakh) and her father Andrew McIntosh; Captain Adolf von Kleist, who's brother also appears but he does not make it onto the ship; James Wait, a con man who's real name the others never have occasion to discover. However most of this cast of characters are killed off, but it's okay because you are forewarned which ones not to get attached to by the asterisks that mark them out for an early death. But as it turns out the Captain is the only male who survives to travel on the ship (although he has no idea how to navigate it) and most of the future world population is directly descended from him and a group of Kanka-bono (fictitious indigenous population) girls, whose presence in the hotel is a weird series of coincidences (and whose names are given at one point but I cannot find it).

Our only other main 'character' is Mandarax. Mandarax is a small hand held device, created by Zenji Hiroguchi. In it's initial incarnation it is purely a language translation computer, but this later version is something of an encyclopedia, and is the only possession that they take with them to the island. The knowledge it contains becomes less and less useful to the castaways, as their island is entirely devoid of any trappings of civilization, but their life (and the book) is punctuated by it's ability to provide the perfect quotation for any given situation.

"Doubt of whatever kind, can be ended in Action alone." (Thomas Carlysle) This one I particularly liked and it is the idea that spurs Mary on to tackle the problem of their lack of babies. They have been there ten years and know nothing of the collapse of the world economy and the arrival of a virus that has rendered all human females sterile, and thus ensured the end of the human race. So thanks to her ingenuity we don't die out entirely, but we do go in to different direction. Leon (our narrator) continually insists that the human race's main problem is their huge brains and their insistence on thinking too much and making things too complicated, and that thanks to a million years of evolution (living on the island) humans are much happier and more suited to their environment.

So, an interesting, and very thought provoking book. Like Cats Cradle it is totally surreal and the cast of characters are a real oddball collection, but you come to admire their ingenuity and determination. I am looking forward to reading more of his work.

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