Thor Heyedahl - The Ra Expeditions
In the Ra Expeditions Thor Heyerdahl has written something of an epic despite it's "mere" 375 pages. In his writing one senses a man who thrives on disaster and his lust for adventure shines through almost every word of this fast-paced and engaging book.
Unusually for a book of this build-a-boat, sail-a-boat nature, almost half of the volume is devoted to the details of the research into and construction of the papyrus boat of an ancient Egyptian design: the premise of this exercise was that ancient civilisations across the globe, but particularly on the Atlantic fringe had shown remarkable similarities; one theory proposed that trans-oceanic contact had allowed a cross-pollination of ancient cultures. This was cried down by isolationist historians who cited the fact that the existing seafaring technologies of the time were wholly inadequate for trans-oceanic voyages.
At this point Heyerdahl chose to conduct an expedition to determine empirically whether a papyrus boat could cross the Atlantic wastes, in the name of experimental archaeology.
The best way to describe this book is perhaps as a series of vivid scenes, the connecting thread between which is Heyerdahl himself. It is his great strength as an author that he can evoke scenes he was witnesssed so completely and effectively in the reader's mind that one can picture Lake Chad's curious floating island neighbourhoods; the Black Monks in their aqueous solitude; or the Easter Island sun, as if one had been there with Heyerdahl. This is not through a laboured description but by firing one's imagination and thus ensuring one's constant attention.
To enjoy the technicolour panoramas is not, however, to neglect the simple human dramas: the difficulties of extracting Abdullah, with his key knowledge of building small papyrus craft from a land falling into civil war; or the disappearance of a tape recorder that threatended to ignite a voyage-destroying mid-Atlantic verbal conflagration.
To what extent one believes Heyerdahl is a matter for personal speculation. The suspicion that incidents have been embellished or even fabricated does hang around a tale that at times becomes incredible, not to say implausible. Like Heyerdahl's extensive and compelling historical arguments, the one thing an impartial observer misses is balance.
However, great works of literature are not defined by their balance or their slavish attention to absolute accuracy. Heyedahl has set out to write a good story of a remarkable - and in terms of historical research - important voyage and he accomplishes this with panache.
In conclusion, this book is a boy's own adventure for adults; and none the worse for being so!