Monday, 18 April 2011

A review of the audio book version of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester

Some time around 8:30 on the morning of May 18, 1980, I was reading in bed, it being the Sunday morning of the Victoria Day long weekend. Victoria Day is a big deal in Victoria, for obvious reasons, but most of the big events take place on the Monday, so I was mildly surprised to hear what I thought was the twenty-one gun salute down at the Inner Harbour. It sounded like a steady series of explosions: Boom...boom...boom.... I didn't count them, but remembered thinking it was an odd time to be having them; such a ceremony usually took place on the hour, a bit later in the morning. It was only when the news came through from Seattle that I realized that what I'd been hearing was the catastrophic eruption of Mount Saint Helen --- two hundred miles away. Some of my Esquimalt neighbours reported the same thing; others didn't hear a thing, but noticed their windows rattling.

On August 27th, 1883, where the western tip of Java nearly meets the southern tip of Sumatra, the volcano Krakatoa finally blew itself apart, and people as far as 3000 miles away heard what they thought were cannons. Since Morse code and undersea cables were a recent innovation, the news spread quickly. At least 32,000 people had died in the monstrous tsunamis and other horrors generated by this natural disaster, the first catastrophe to be so quickly and widely reported, as well as so deeply studied.

Those coming to Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded and expecting a grisly account of the disaster itself may be disappointed. Simon Winchester begins with the leisurely and detailed objective of placing the event in every context imaginable: historic, economic, geologic, sociological, political, meteorologic.... It's a long journey indeed before he gets down to a meticulous retelling of the events leading up to and those resulting from the series of terrifying blasts in the Sunda Strait.

While it's true the story is especially gripping at that point, I found the roundabout journey compelling as well. This may be because I was listening to the audio version of the book, read clearly and pleasantly by Winchester himself. I enjoyed his dry humour and his multifaceted approach.

I have a bone to pick with him, however. In passing, he mentions the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen, comparing it with the unbelievable cacophony of Krakatoa a century earlier and stating that in Mount St Helen's case, the blast was not heard beyond the immediate surrounding mountain range. Evidently, Mr Winchester did not speak to anyone in Victoria, British Columbia....

For those hungry for the angst and agony of Krakatoa's death throes, you might seek out the 2006 BBC docu-drama on the subject Krakatoa: The Last Days, starring Olivia Williams and Rupert Penry-Jones, which I believe features interviews with Simon Winchester himself. I haven't seen this film, which is unavailable in Canada, but some lengthy excerpts are available at YouTube:

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