Sun, 03 Aug 2003

Winchester gets to bottom of momentous moment in history

When Simon Winchester spoke at the British Council last week, he nearly brought the house down.

A conflicted man on a book tour, he has recently come to feel torn between engaging in the business of promotion and the propriety of his politics.

All of this was particularly challenged by a trip to the United States in July, that culminated in Texas with a congratulatory gaggle of "ample bosomed" women, waving fistfuls of money, at the Dallas Country Club.

"We're just so proud of Mr. Tony Blair for standing shoulder to shoulder with our president!" they cooed. Suddenly, Krakatoa seemed farther away than ever, but never so appealing.

Indeed Krakatoa, despite its enormous power and portentous links to broader social and scientific developments in the world at the time of its explosion, has never gotten its just desserts.

Publications and scholarly works on the volcano have been lackluster, while Hollywood's attempt to immortalize the vast contractions of the mountain simply placed the whole thing in the wrong place with the film Krakatoa, East of Java.

The volcano, we now recognize with guffaws, is of course on the West, but Winchester took the mentioning of the film as an opportunity to congratulate director Bernard Kowalski on his "symphony of exploding Styrofoam".

To date, there had been no serious thinking about the volcano, its eruption or its broader impact in the world.

English-born Winchester has drummed up a thick book to change all that, and has recently traveled to Asia to host discussions and promote his work.

In a flaxen-colored jacket with the pink plume of a handkerchief stylishly tucked in, Winchester held the rapt attention of his audiences at his first talk to kick off the Jakarta leg. He had the gregarious nature and affable gestures that brought the pages of his black-and-red-covered book to life, even if it left the front row of seats a bit sparsely populated. The man needs his space.

The figures that make up the Krakatoa explosion are very much at Winchester's fingertips, and he presented an impressive array of digits that help to illuminate what may otherwise seem too abstract, too massive, to comprehend.

Winchester coupled this with the witty stories of survival he details in the book, such as one Dutch official who reportedly rode a crocodile atop one of the colossal waves to safety, his thumbs stuck inside the unwitting creature's eye sockets.

Likewise, the Oxford-trained geologist debated some of the finer points of Krakatoa's geological significance, as well as the many local myths and belief systems that he covers in his book.

"The volcanoes that are truly dangerous are those that don't erupt," Winchester later explained. "The largest of this nature is in Yellowstone Natural Park in the United States. Everything else will pale in comparison when that erupts." By that time, however, human life is expected to have long gone extinct.

Perhaps the greatest modern tragedy of Krakatoa is that so few Indonesian scholars and writers have devoted ample time to the eruption and its significance.

"The story is being lost in popular memory. This needs to be told in Indonesia."

Unfortunately, despite its recent translation into languages as diverse as Hebrew and Icelandic, there are currently no plans to translate the book into Indonesian.

"I would like to see this translated for local readers," Winchester added.

-- Caroline Cooper