This post was first published by Suite101.
Welcome to “the Nature Cruise of the Century” – featuring blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, a language-translating machine named Mandarax, and the potential extinction of the human race. All these events and characters come together in classic, absurd Vonnegut style to create Galapagos. Published in 1985 Galapagos is one of Vonnegut’s later novels, and it is often hailed by critics as a comeback for the writer. Like Vonnegut’s earlier work, Galapagos is characterised by exaggerated characters, imaginative scenarios, and striking insights into the human condition. And while Galapagos paints an often unflattering picture of the human species, there is great humour and affection for the characters (and all their faults) as well.
Galapagos takes place in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, on the island of Santa Rosalia (a fictional part of the Galapagos archipelago), and the Pacific Ocean in-between. The story focuses on a group of people destined to carry on (and transform) the human population on the Galapagos Islands, as a plague of infertility slowly wipes out Homo sapiens on the mainland. Mary Hepburn is a recently widowed school teacher with an interest in Charles Darwin. James Wait is a conman with an interest in seducing widowed women and running off with their money. These two characters are joined by a young blind woman and her seeing-eye dog, a pregnant Japanese lady, a group of orphans from the lost Ecuadorian Kanka-bono tribe, and Adolf von Kleist, a ship’s captain more qualified to appear on talk shows than to navigate the ocean. Through a random series of events – or twists of fate – these characters find themselves fleeing war-torn Ecuador on the Bahia de Darwin – the ship originally intended to take them on “the Nature Cruise of the Century”. Their fate is to create a colony on Santa Rosalia that will continue the human race – albeit much changed. A million years into the future (the narrator of Galapagos reports), the laws of natural selection have reformed the human race into a group of beings with flippers, fur, and much smaller brains.
The story’s narrator is a mysterious and omniscient character, whose identity is not revealed until close to the end of the book. He is relating the events of Galapagos one million years after they have taken place (most of the story is set in 1986), remembering with wonder the human race of the past. “[J]ust about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms!” The narrator recalls. “Can it be doubted”, he asks, “that three-kilogram brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?”
The narrator spends a good deal of the story musing on the troubles “big brains” had gotten human beings into back in 1986. The idea of bumbling Homo sapiens – hindered rather than helped by minds that think too much – is at the heart of Vonnegut’s writing and philosophy. “This was a very innocent planet,” Vonnegut writes in Galapagos, “except for those great big brains”. Humans are no better or worse than any other animal, but they are slaves to the often crazy ideas of their big brains, and to the irresistible urge to experiment with those ideas in reality. The result is a species that will:
have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blow up whole cities, and on and on.
Galapagos is a stylistically interesting book in terms of the way in which the story jumps back and forth in time. The narrator is on one level telling the story as it happens, while at the same time relating information about characters and events that will occur in the future. The reader is given bits and pieces of a puzzle throughout the narrative, but is unable to see the story as a whole until the very end. The bits and pieces are just enough to pique curiosity about how things will finish up. The reader is waiting to find out what will happen to these characters once they reach Santa Rosalia. They are also eager to discover who the narrator is, and how he fits into the story. Throughout Galapagos the narrator drops intriguing hints about his life – he fought in the Vietnam War, he lived in Sweden for a while and so on. It is not until the end of the book, however, that his identity is fully and satisfyingly revealed.
Like all of Vonnegut’s most popular novels, Galapagos expertly combines elements of philosophy, sadness, and satire to create both an entertaining and thought provoking story. While his view of the human race and its future may be somewhat bleak, each character is drawn with tenderness and wit (as awkward and as disabled by big brains as they may be). It seems that Vonnegut may have felt as Anne Frank, quoted in the epigraph of Galapagos, did – “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart”.
Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, and died in 2007. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, and, according to the author’s blurb in the Dell paperback edition of Galapagos, he “has been to the Galapagos Islands on a cruise.” Vonnegut’s other novels include Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and Breakfast of Champions.