martes, 20 de julio de 2010

Serpent In Paradise by Dea Birkett

Towards the end of Serpent In Paradise Dea Birkett offers a personal confession. “We all hold a place in our hearts – a perfect place – which is the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there.” It may have been another mistake to have written about it.

Serpents In Paradise is a perfectly good read. It is well written, if a little clumsy here and there. Personally, I blame the editor. It’s a travel book, relating the history and experience of the author’s quest to Pitcairn island. At the time of writing, just over two hundred years had elapsed since sine the famous mutineers on The Bounty had stumbled upon a wrongly-mapped island in the south Pacific. Thus they found their own perfect hiding place, so they burned their bridges, in their case a ship. It is largely their descendents who still inhabit Pitcairn and it was in this society that Dea Birkett sought her own personal paradise.

Getting to and from Pitcairn is an adventure in itself. It has no regular services and no harbour. A visitor has to make an application to the island’s authorities – basically the entire population – for permission to land. And Pitcairn islanders don’t like writers. Dea Birkett’s ruse to gain access was a project on the Island’s postal service, whose stamps and franks are both rare and in high demand from collectors. Then you have to find a freighter, usually out of New Zealand, over three thousand miles distant, that happens to be charting a course near to Pitcairn and is planning to pause there.

When this happens, the Island’s entire population turns out. There are supplies to be delivered, fish to sell to the ship, trinkets to sell to the crew. Occasionally, there are people to transfer up or down the rope ladder. The author made it into the pitching longboat below, but initially failed in several other feats during her stay.

What she did accomplish was the creation of a rather light, impressionistic view of life within a dwindling island community. We are on first name terms form the start, but strangely most of the characters we meet retain an anonymity. As we read on, an explanation emerges. Dea Birkett eventually records how this community usually seems to act as a single entity. They share tasks, forage, fish and cultivate in groups. Decisions emerge out of communally chewing over an issue, apparently without ever confronting it directly. They are driven by their religion, Seventh Day Adventism, to impose restrictions on possibility, but then not everyone takes the rules seriously, hence the local division of inhabitants into “old and young”, effectively traditional and modern. But the tradition came from foreigners in the late nineteenth century, and the modern involves imported beer.

And it was into this largely biblically-literal society that Dea Birkett brought her serpent. As in the original, it was temptation embodied. Forbidden fruit were tasted. There was a fall from Grace. And yet the author does not tell us whether there were consequences as a result of her island fling. She does, however, continue the quote at the start of this review as follows: “Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself.”

And thus we reach the nub of the problem. With the printed word, the medium is not the message. This always has to be disentangled, revealed and understood. In Serpent In Paradise, we have a perfectly good read, a well-described travel experience, but it may be too focused on a journey within to really take us there.

View this book on amazon
Serpent in Paradise