Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Island Hen of Tristan da Cunha by Albert Beintema

You are not likely to read this book as it still awaits an English translator, so this “very early” review is for the moment the best you can get. So sit up, be quiet and listen.

Does the Island Hen, the Gallinula Nesiotis, a non-flying bird from the Island of Tristan da Cunha really exist as a separate species? There have been after all several reports of sightings. Or is that small black bird a myth, only confused with the Gallinula Comeri or Gough Moorhen from the neighbour island of Gough? Or, third possibility, did it really exist until man and his critters exterminated it? Did the Island Hen go the way of the Dodo? Another Emu?

Beintema, a retired Dutch bio- and ornithologist, promises us to elucidate that mystery once and for all and it is the start for an investigation not only in this ornithological mystery but also into the history of the island and the people of Tristan da Cunha.

Starting off from his own field of ornithology, Beintema introduces us first to the elusive Island Hen, then to the birds in general, the wildlife, the people and then the stories of Tristan da Cunha and its neighbouring islands Gough, Inaccessible and Nightingale. His fascination for the island of Tristan is addictive. This remote speck of land in the middle of the South- Atlantic Ocean, which boasts to be the most isolated community in the world, is home to 263 inhabitants, all descendants and relatives of the first visitors, 19th century adventurers and shipwreck survivors.

The book consists of two parts. In the first part of the book, Beintema brings us the interesting story of Tristan da Cunha. From the early visitors to this forbidding island to the families who start to carve out a living at this “edge of the world” this story is packed with historical information and collected anecdotes. There are the tragicomical relations of the shipwrecks and their survivors. There are the intrusions by the occasional visitors, especially the many self – elected benefactors, preachers and other clergymen. There is a description of the wildlife. There is a murder, there is a treasure and there are mysteries, death and disappearances.

By the end of the first part, your informed enough about the island to experience a déja-vu, the day you’ll set a foot on Tristan.

In the second part, Beintema recalls his first visit to the island in 1993. And here this travelogue gets an interesting edge. The “Tristanitas” form a small community and all men are fisher-farmers. Living on the small island they stick to their accustomed way of living, prioritizing their jobs according to weather, necessity and community life. And playing guide for a Dutch biologist comes from islander’s point of view at the bottom of the list. This is very much to the frustration of Beintema who has booked and paid for a guide to help him find his Hens and to take blood samples to elucidate the mystery. Beintema who as a Dutch scientist may well be the epitome of rationality and planning and has his roots in the permissive debate culture of his up-bringing does not fit in. And I find it much to his credit that he also says it, not only in his book but also to the islanders.

The Hen mystery in the end is not solved and Beintema returns home with serious second thoughts and the reader remains with a doubt : Was the hunt for the Island Hen a wild goose chase?

What do think about the book?

Tristan da Cunha is for Beintema what Patagonia was for Bruce Chatwin. Although Beintema’s scientific no bullshit style is not a match for the flamboyant exuberance of Chatwin, there is as much interesting lore to find in the pages of “The Island Hen” than there is in “Patagonia”.

Chatwin, who redefined the genre of travel writing by combining little nuggets of historical information with anecdotes collected along the road, did however for the sake of readability fictionalize the characters and conversations he had. Most of the time these real life characters after recognizing their highly fictionalized appearences in Chatwin’s novels were not amused. Chatwin, who didn’t really care, was not welcome anymore with his hosts in Patagonia or the Australian outback.

Beintema describes Tristan as it really is, without fictionalizing the people he meet or embellish the annecdotes, but I suspect that he gets the the same reactions from his hosts as Chatwin.

Says Mark Twain : “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad".

For an easy visit of Tristan da Cunha :