Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Evolving Fictions (Galápagos novels)

The Galápagos Islands are both familiar and exotic, a commonplace of short-hand evolutionary theory ("everyone knows" Charles Darwin used his observations there to develop his theory of natural selection) that despite the boom in tourism over the last three decades, relatively few people will ever visit. Sixteenth-century sailors called the islands "enchanted" because they seemed to appear and disappear. For Ecuador, the islands, annexed in 1832 and first settled as a penal colony, have been a destination for impoverished colonists from the mainland, a military base, a source of revenue and of national pride, and a hotly disputed area in which the interests of local fishermen, settlers, tour operators, and conservationists come into conflict. Described and re-imagined by novelists, poets, nature writers, and essayists, as well as by filmmakers, the islands have become a "written archipelago." The theme of a paradise in danger of being corrupted--or already corrupted--appears repeatedly, in both fiction and nonfiction. Darwin, in his diary, wrote of Chatham Island, "The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be" (304). The narrator of Herman Melville's "The Encantadas" observes, "In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist" (127).
To set a novel, or part of a novel, in the Galápagos is to open questions of evolution, origin, and change; the setting carries with it rich conceptual and metaphorical baggage. Whether or not the location is ultimately central to the story, the reader will expect the islands to mean something. While readers' contact with the islands may come more from travel guides and ecological accounts (there are many excellent guides as well as recent histories that discuss both political and environmental events in the archipelago), poetry and fiction set in the Galápagos also reveal an emphasis on the movement (of humans and other species) to and from the islands, and a consciousness that what we read often determines where we go.
Much Galápagos writing has happened outside Ecuador, but the islands have been a focus within Ecuador as well, particularly in the work of writers Alicia Yánez Cossío, Efraín Jara Idrovo, and Gustavo Vásconez Hurtado. Jara Idrovo, for instance, spent several years in the Galápagos during the 1950s. In his long poem "sollozo por pedro jara," the search for the son's name unites the poet's search for the right word, the stone contained in the name Pedro (Peter), and the stones of the rocky islands. (Cecilia Mafla Bustamante's translation of the poem appears in the journal ISLE (5.1, 1998). [] Yánez Cossío's third novel, Mas allá de las islas [Beyond the Islands], first published in 1980, rewrites the archipelago in a parable of destruction and renewal, while a second novel related to the Galápagos, Esclavos de Chatham, treats the sufferings, rebellion, and trial of a group of presumed criminals who arrived in Guayaquil in 1904, having escaped from Chatham Island (today known as San Cristóbal) where they had been the prisoners of Manuel J. Cobos. The exploits and disappearance of the vanished Baroness Bousequet von Wagner in the 1930s remain staples of fictional and nonfiction accounts of the islands. Gustavo Vásconez Hurtado's novelLa isla de los gatos negros offers an interpretation of events surrounding the baroness closely linked to presumed espionage work for the Germans and the Japanese on the part of the protagonists.
Novels written outside of Ecuador often take the Galápagos as an exotic backdrop against which to place characters working out personal dilemmas unrelated to their locale (as in Cathleen Schein's The Evolution of Jane) or as one stop among many on a longer sea voyage (Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side of the World). In Nino Ricci's The Origin of Species, the protagonist is an "accidental tourist" (with apologies to Anne Tyler), a man who, on that other mainstay of South American adventure tourism, the Inca Trail, was urged by another traveler to visit the islands that he subsequently finds unwelcoming and unreal: "The landscape was freakish, barren near the shore but slowly giving way to grey half-soil studded with grey shrub, the vegetation spaced out so evenly it looked sinister" (236). While the protagonist's trip pushes him to the edge of survival and humanity, the central themes of the novel, relating to memory and origins (of personality or motivation more than of species) might have been evoked by any harsh environment. In Melville's enchanted isles, life comes from elsewhere, and mainly in the form of the trash that litters "wide level beaches of multitudinous dead shells, with here and there decayed bits of sugar-cane, bamboos, and cocoanuts, washed upon this other and darker world from the charming palm isles to the westward and southward; all the way from Paradise to Tartarus" (127). Melville combines excess and emptiness, the furthest heaven and the deepest, lightless pits of hell, so that the islands appear unchanging, uninhabitable, and yet constantly washed by the perpetually variable sea, populated only by reptiles and by plants that are somehow incomplete, "tangled thickets of wiry bushes, without fruit and without a name" (127).
Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos are a haven of possible renewal, one in which the sole survivors of a series of catastrophes--among them a global financial collapse--are a group of improbable castaways shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalía. Vonnegut's novel resonates most strongly with Yánez Cossío's satirical, sometimes whimsical, vision. Leon Trout, narrator of Vonnegut's novel, highlights the element of chance in the evolution of human opinion as he observes, "If Charles Darwin had not declared the Galápagos Islands marvelously instructive, Guayaquil would have been just one more hot and filthy seaport" (16). In his recap of the islands' history, Trout notes that the Spanish "did not claim the islands for Spain, any more than they would have claimed hell for Spain" (18). When Ecuador later stakes its claim, "It was as though Ecuador, in a spasm of imperialistic dementia, had annexed to its territory a passing cloud of asteroids" (18). Curiously, like Yánez Cossío's Beyond the Islands, Vonnegut's novel also includes a plague of infertility, this one caused by mysterious bacteria. In Vonnegut's text, the archipelago makes possible the survival of the human species, which has died out elsewhere on earth. Granted, a million years have passed, and the humans of the novel's present have changed--evolved--so that they are now a species very similar to seals, a species that lacks the enormous brain that Leon Trout (a ghost), blames for all of the disasters suffered by humans in the distant past. Vonnegut's novel both comments upon and contributes to the recycling of prior descriptions of the islands as either inferno or paradise. Through the device of a tour brochure that includes Darwin's description of the islands in The Voyage of the Beagle, Trout is able simultaneously to cite a fictional advertisement "intended to delight nature-lovers rather than pleasure-seekers" and to reproduce, again, Darwin's stark assessment of that uninviting place (13). That Darwin's statement--"Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance" of the islands--is being used to sell tickets is a further irony.


Darwin, Charles. Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Ed. Nora Barlow. The Works of Charles Darwin. Vol. 1. Ed. Paul H. Barrett and R.B. Freeman. New York: New York UP, 1987.
Jara Idrovo, Efraín. El mundo de las evidencias. Obra poética, 1945-1998. Ed. María Augusta Vintimilla. Quito: Libresa/Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 1999.
Melville, Herman. "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles." The Piazza Tales. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996. 125-73.
O'Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. 1984. New York: Norton, 1992.
Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2009.
Schine, Cathleen. The Evolution of Jane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Vásconez Hurtado, Gustavo. La isla de los gatos negros: (Galápagos). 1973. Quito: Ediciones Libri Mundi, 1993.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. 1985. New York: Dell, 1999.
Yánez Cossío, Alicia. Beyond the Islands. Trans. Amalia Gladhart. New Orleans: UNO Press, 2011 (forthcoming).
---. Esclavos de Chatham. Cuenca: Editorial Sano Placer, 2006.
---. Más allá de las islas. 1st. ed. Quito: Colegio Técnico "Don Bosco," 1980

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