Monday, January 11, 2010


I've been on something of a Thor Heyerdahl kick for the last few months reading-- for the first time-- Fatu-Hiva, Kon-Tiki, and now Aku-Aku.

Aku-Aku is a highly readable telling of the Norwegian Geographic Expedition trip to Easter Island in 1958. Heyerdahl is masterful at telling a story and keeping a sense of drama and mystery alive as the story unfolds. Of course he wouldn't be writing these book if he wern't engaged in some really amazing feats of exploration and experimental anthropology. When I'd read Huckleberry Finn, I became intently focused on a dream to build a raft with my friends and float around Lake Champlain. Well, that stayed a dream, but Kon-Tiki was a great read for armchair traveler such as myself. Aku-Aku lacks that aspect of drama, but nonetheless is compelling in taking the reader on an intimate journey to one of the most geographically remote places on earth, and one that has an abundant share of mystery.

Easter Island is home to the famous moia head that we've all seen. Heyerdahl and his expedition set out to answer the questions of who made the statues, how did they make them, how did they move them, and how did they stand them up. Doing this work in the mid-fifties, the island was still quite isolated, with only one ship visit a year. Hence there were still vestiges of the old ways and culture before Christianity and "civilization" started to edge out the traditional ways of the natives.

After dispensing fairly quickly with the mysteries of the statues, much of the rest of the book focuses on the treasures hidden in family caves that are only open to an appointed member of each family and passed down through generations. Heyerdahl's complex route to getting access to these caves is based, to a degree on his ability to manipulate the spiritual beliefs of the natives by convincing them that his spirit power --his Aku-Aku's-- was powerful enough that they cowed to it and then let him into these caves. It struck me that this was pretty suspect behavior in the name of enhancing museum collections. I don't buy his sense that it's okay to manipulate others belief systems when it comes to taking their valuable heirlooms.

In the end I found myself a bit critical and impatient with this story. I suspect Heyerdahl was making an effort to infuse what was essentially a scientific mission with some drama. Fair enough, but the work feels a bit dated and maybe a little dumbed down for popular appeal. Whereas "Kon-Tiki" was, just by its premise, a thrilling adventure, this work has to struggle a bit to pull the reader along.