There have been noticeably frequent earthquakes this past month. At least here in Hawai`i there have been a dozen or so reports that luckily no tsunami was generated from the quake in (fill in the country). All this shaking and the recent lava flows on the Big Island reminded me of Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, detailing the world-changing eruption of 1883, which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. I gave it high praise, and revisited it today, reminded of the lovely quote from The Little Prince which heads the first chapter:
“He also had one volcano that was extinct. But, as he said, ‘One never knows!’ So he cleaned out the extinct volcano, too. If they are well cleaned out, volcanoes burn slowly and steadily, without any eruptions. Volcanic eruptions are like fires in a chimney. On our earth we are much too small to clean out our volcanoes. That is why they bring no end of trouble upon us.”
–from The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1944
Krakatoa brought literally the entire world a heap of trouble as Winchester so engrossingly reveals. My review in full:
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
Harper Collins; 401 pp.; $25.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 6 April 2003
“I try to cover the story in a chronological, linear sort of way,” Simon Winchester once told an interviewer, “but I very deliberately go off in an exuberant way along all the tangents that seem valuable and interesting.” Though Winchester was talking about his best-selling book The Map That Changed the World, his words apply just as well to his latest work, Krakatoa, where Winchester resurrects the fifth most explosive volcano in the world as his main character.
This doesn’t mean that his attention has turned completely away from intriguing personages. For though Winchester is also a traveler and geologist, it is the histories of the men and women who lived and worked near this devastating mountain of fire that make up many of the book’s expertly woven tangents.
The eruption of 1883 “was the greatest detonation, the loudest sound, the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history,” he writes, causing the volcano itself to vanish and, the book argues, the world’s view of itself to change, forever. “The eruption of Krakatoa was, indeed, the first true catastrophe in the world to take place after the establishment of a worldwide network of telegraph cables—a network that allowed news of disaster to be flashed around the planet in double-quick time.” With much the same effect television news has today, “the world’s people suddenly became part of a new brotherhood of knowledge…‘the global village’ was born, in part through the agency of this enormous explosion.”
Using myriad sources, including eye-witness accounts, ship’s logs, journal entries, telegrams, news articles, and geological papers, an exhaustive picture is put forth of the events and discoveries from the time of Java’s colonization in the 16th century and the eruption of 1883, down to the present independent Islamic state and birth of a new volcano, “the child of Krakatoa,” which grows at the incredible rate of five inches a week. The tremendous breadth of knowledge Winchester exhibits could easily overwhelm, but Winchester is expert at relating the many, often long, diversions in his book, doing so in consistently vivid, visually descriptive language.
Among the divergent stories he tells are that of the Spice Trade and 350 years of repression of the Javanese, itself a “a discordant continuo in the telling of the tale of Krakatoa.” Winchester also examines the development of the “survival of the fittest” theory, alongside the birth of the telegraph and undersea cables, the founding of Reuters, and the beginnings of the continental drift theory, which “happen[s] to underlie, both literally and figuratively, the making and unmaking of all volcanoes.”
As if that weren’t enough, there are humorous personal accounts of the author’s expedition to the coast of Greenland while he was at Oxford in the ‘60s, and the discoveries made there that were integral to the scientific inquiry into volcanoes. There are also the curious meetings Winchester happened to have with key players in the book before he even thought about writing it—all too unusual and coincidental to be fiction.
Of course the explosion itself, every possible result and violent repercussion felt round the world, is explained in startling detail: “In the aftermath of Krakatoa’s eruption, 165 villages were devastated, 36,417 people died, and uncomfortable thousands were injured.” Yet it wasn’t just ash and fire that directly caused the mass destruction of villages and residents, but the “immense sea-waves that were propelled outward from the volcano by the last night of detonations” which continued to kill, including those who thought they had been spared.
Winchester’s exceptional attention to detail never falters, his thoroughness making him incapable of suffering “the inevitable fate of any writer of nonfiction who makes anything up.” Perhaps his greatest strength, exhibited remarkably here, is his ability to make a mystery out of that which is already known, compelling the reader forward with foreshadowing and conversational, fiction-like narrative.
The investigation of this long-ago geological event resounds in its awe-producing power, seeming both a window into today’s tumultuous and connected world, and a devastating reminder of the fragile nature of our environment. “Krakatoa is,” among quite many other qualities, “a stark reminder of the truth of Will Durant’s famous aphorism ‘Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.’ “