Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Well, this was a strange one! I wanted a book set in the Galapagos islands, but after "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw", I didn't think I needed another non-fiction book quite yet. I did some research, but couldn't find a novel that fit the bill. When I realized that Margaret Wittmer's memoir "Floreana" would also fit in nicely with my Goodreads Rainbow Challenge, I decided to ignore my mostly-novels guidelines that I set up at the start of the challenge, and went ahead and ordered a used copy. I thought about getting a copy of the original German memoir--"Trauminseln Floreana", but I couldn't bear to spend more money; besides, all the available copies were in the UK or in Germany, and since I'm cramming in yet more titles I'm in a bit of a hurry. Just by coincidence, I started the book on July 12th, Margaret's birthday.

Part of me does wish that I had read this book in German. The style is rather remote, almost blank; it can be a bit off-putting. I hunted around the Internet to see if I could find an example of Wittmer's  original writing, but I could find her previous book, penned to explain that she and her husband weren't really guilty of murder (!) as had been accused, only in English; even the excerpts "Floreana" available on her family website are only in English and not in German or even Spanish. I don't think, ultimately, that it matters much; the content as well as the manner in which it is written is quite odd indeed; that of an intelligent, yet guarded amateur who was persuaded to write down her incredible tale that involves giving birth alone in a pirate cave and yes, murder.

Margaret Wittmer and her much older husband Heinz arrived in Floreana in 1932, after Heinz, who was Dr. Adenauer's (yes, the Adenauer) private secretary in Cologne. She's a little vague on why they went, save that her husband had been enchanted by the writings of a mad dentist-nudists who was then living on Floreana; there was somehow also some business that living on a remote island would improve the eyesight of her mostly blind stepson. It was cheaper than a sanatorium, they reasoned. So close did they keep their plans to their vest that they didn't even bother to tell their close family member in Cologne of their intentions, but cooly told them that they would see them, as usual, for Sunday dinner the following week. So right now you know you have on your hands not the most reliable of narrators, which is fine and fun in fiction, but not so comfortable in real life.

The cave where Greta gave birth

Wittmer was pregnant when they landed on the island with only the eccentric Dr Ritter and his acolyte to keep them company. This seems so mind-blowingly foolish to me that at the beginning I could only think that her husband had talked her into such a mad scheme. She must, I thought, have been incredibly weak-minded. As I continued the book, however, it occurred to me that I had it all wrong; perhaps she was so strong-minded that I just couldn't see it. She often uses a rather impersonal "we" instead of "I"; maybe her husband and she were really a team, and she didn't have to be persuaded to do anything.

Or maybe she was just obtuse. I don't know. There's a curious lack of introspection in most of the book, as is noted by Publisher'sWeekly (oddly enough this fairly critical review is featured prominently on the website), combined with a lot of fault-finding. But you really can't blame her: if hell is other people, being trapped on an island five miles long with other couldn't-find-their-place-in-the-world eccentrics must be the 9th circle of the inferno.

While reading this book, my mind keep turning to the history of the United States and the frontier mentality. I don't care what kind of Laura Ingalls Wilder tale of we're all in this together coziness (she glossed over a great many things, anyway) some people have of making a new life on the edge of society. Many of the people who left the confines of the normal world did leave because they couldn't fit in; in short, they were misfits or just plain weird. I kept thinking of this when I read about the first several years on the island, when the Wittmers, besides dealing with scratching out a survival existence with a newborn and a half-blind kid, were also dealing with a small group of odd, even dangerous people.

I won't go into details with the ersatz baroness and the spoiled chicken, but it is quite a tale. (Odd, too, that I read two books in a row where rotten meant played a prominent part in the story.) In the end, the Wittmers were alone for several years, maybe the best time they had on the island. As there fame grew, however, many people dropped by for a visit--even famous ones like Franklin Roosevelt (whom they missed) and Thor Heyerdahl. World War II changed their idyll for good as the Americans leased the island from Ecuador to build  a small base. Wittmer is very frank about how she felt about the changing political climate in Germany, and her conflicted views; it is the most emotionally honest she is in the book. You never get a clear picture of her husband's personality, or of her stepson and her own boy; most of her preoccupation is with her daughter FloreanitaWittmer children have paid for their parents's decision.

This is a book I never would have picked up if it hadn't been for the double combination of my 52-Country Challenge and my Rainbow Challenge. I can see why this is a favorite of some people; it's as strange and compelling as any science fiction, and it all happened not so long ago. It certainly made me want to travel to the Galapagos Islands myself, though Margaret makes it clear that the islands have suffered man's predations for centuries, and though personalities and survival, and not the natural world, were her primary preoccupation. You don't get much of a sense of the majesty of the islands--a brisk practicality permeates the pages, so I guess I will have to check it out myself one day. Maybe I will--someday. Until then I can dream: 

Floreana--Margaret Wittmer
Translated by Olive Coburn
                                                                  Three and a half Stars

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