A searching spirit infests a memoir of a month spent way, way down yonder, on Amsterdam Island in the south Indian Ocean, giving the author some extreme downtime to ponder life’s strangeness.
“The island was remote to the point of being inaccessible; it was barely inhabited, although supplied with meat and wine; it was small enough to be taken in at a glance, but not without a variety of features,” Dutch journalist van Cleef writes. Just the place for a guy at existential loose ends with no family, no girlfriend, no job—nothing but an urge to get to the edge and look over. Getting there would prove vexing: a good fifth of the narrative details van Cleef’s assault on the French political hierarchy to gain access to Amsterdam Island. About this piece of absurdist theater worthy of Ionesco, he writes, “the project had degenerated into a series of letters written in reference to other letters, into a self-perpetuating cycle of occasionally promising, but never definite, developments.” Once the green light is given, the island proves to be his kind of place. Approaching its gray shores “was like watching a black-and-white movie on a channel with poor reception”; closer proximity brought the stink of fur seals and the buzz of flies. The site’s tranquility was wreathed in a state of permanent decay. Van Cleef shares his time on the island with a small band of volcanologists, ornithologists, students of lichen and wind, a detail of soldiers to protect the outpost, and a company of carpenters, glaziers, and other hired hands who fix the weather tower, make the water drinkable, or coddle the video machine. Unlike those taking geomagnetic and seismological measurements, van Cleef treasures his geographical, cultural, and psychic distance from it all.
As sere and scoured as its locale, hard-fought and cleansing for author and reader alike, making for a companionable excursion into forlornness. (3 b&w photos, not seen)