One of the signs that the world has grown smaller is that Robinson Crusoe is no longer the archetype of popular literature it once was. Almost from its publication, in 1719, the machinery of imitation and pastiche ground out a voluminous yield. Among the best-known examples are Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and the several variations wrought by Jules Verne; the very last might be those two films of the early 1960s, Space Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The lure of Robinsonism certainly depended on the romance of the unspoiled and faraway; what distinguished it from mere noble savagery was the premise of civilized beings in an uninhabited locale. The blank slate allows for society-building in its pure state, a kind of victimless colonialism.
It is no longer easy to believe that there might be uninhabited islands not being used as atomic testing sites, but in the late 1920s, when the action of The Galapagos Affair begins, the Pacific islands still seemed like unviolated territory. Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter were a couple of Berliners under the influence of the Robinsonaden who decided to act out their fancy. Another volume on their shelf specified the location: it was Floreana, otherwise known as Santa Maria, or Charles Island, a medium-sized member of the Galapagos chain. It had been sporadically inhabited over the years, by pirates, castaways, would-be white gods, and unsuccessful settlers, but just as often left alone, and was currently available. So Friedrich resigned his position at the Hydrotherapeutic Institute of the University of Berlin, and they ditched their respective unwanted spouses by simply having Friedrich’s wife keep house for Dore’s husband.
They sailed for Floreana via Guayaquil with an enormous load of supplies, including zinc bathtubs, mattresses, roofing material, and the latest in kitchenware, but not including hats, meat, grain, or coffee, items banned by Friedrich. His philosophy was the expedition’s creed. Not restricted to Robinsonism, it was an eclectic brew of crypto-Nietzscheanism and various strains of romantic humbug. He had a series of impressively symmetrical charts to illuminate concepts from “The Circle of the World as Sentiency” to the ground plan of the garden, which was to be shaped like an egg. His system found a role for everything; for example, he and Dore both saw her position as being the “warrior’s rest.” Once on the island, he did not lack for objects of contemplation. On the “socialism” of the ants he wrote: “In the battle against them one drops every respect for this by the moderns so highly praised ‘solidarity’ and recognizes the whole misery of an endeavour where ‘one hand always wants to wash the other.”
Their house and garden were built laboriously, at enormous cost to morale. To aid in the struggle, however, they permitted themselves to accept gifts from passing ships, gifts increasingly “impure,” such as guns and dynamite. Chief among beneficent vessels was a mammoth yacht, devoted to scientific research, owned and operated by a certain Captain G. Allan Hancock, a philanthropist and amateur cellist. (Captain Hancock recurs so often as a deus exmachina in this narrative that he suggests a relation to Groucho Marx’s Captain Spalding: “Hooray for Captain Spalding!”)
Scarcely had the Ritters established themselves in some approximation of creature comfort than they began to field invasions of copycat pioneers. The press had not been inattentive to them. Friedrich himself had written a series of articles for the Atlantic Monthly, and the European papers had touted them widely as “the Adam and Eve of Floreana,” with the expected fringe benefit of their putative nudity, and so forth. Expeditions of dilettantes would arrive, be quickly discouraged by the lush but daunting terrain, and leave. In 1932, however, serious rivals for the territorial Ritters came in the unlikely form of the Wittmer family, Heinz, the pregnant Margret, and Harry, her son from a previous marriage.
The Wittmers were solid citizens of a kind not usually associated with exotic relocation, but times were uncertain in Europe, and Harry’s health was threatened by the urban environment of Cologne. They faced their challenge with considerably less posturing and greater practicality than the Ritters, and got an actual German household set up in far less time. The two groups cordially detested each other, but they hardly had time to indulge their rancorous sentiments before a more fateful arrival took place: that of the self-styled Baroness Eloise Wagner de Bosquet, or de Wagner Wehrborn, as the case may be. She arrived on the back of an ass, wearing sunglasses and lipstick, with an entourage of men, several of whom appeared to be her lovers, and such supplies as cement and corrugated iron. She announced that she had come to build a hideaway hotel for millionaires. It was noticed that she had tampered with every item of mail she delivered to the Ritters and the Wittmers, that she spoke French with her attendants, and that she was frequently to be seen brandishing a whip.
The emotional temperature on the island, already high before the Baroness’s landfall, positively burst the thermometer, as relations between the three camps became a sort of permanent state of war. The Baroness may have instigated many of the skirmishes, but everyone seems to have contributed his share of pettiness and spite. Mail and gifts from passing vessels would be abstracted, supplies commandeered, caches raided, and favorite animals executed. Varying accounts of the rivalries would be fed to the German and Ecuadorian press, who became unlikely dupes in the struggle. The Baroness’s style kept everyone interested: it was noted that she enjoyed acquiring both animals and men by purposely wounding them, and then nursing them back to health. Certainly her regal fickleness kept the pace unpredictable, and prevented any hint of stability from marring the island’s fever chart.
Eventually, the delicate equilibrium of the island community snapped. The Baroness and her favorite vanished, then a discarded lover exited by boat. Months later he was found, along with a companion, mysteriously mummified on the shore of a distant island. Finally Ritter, the vegetarian, died of botulism from tainted chicken meat. The remoteness of the island made investigation impossible. Baroness and favorite were never recovered, alive or dead. The fate of the mummified sailors could only be surmised. Even the details of Ritter’s death were impossible to establish, although murder seems a good bet.
The Galapagos Affair ostensibly sets out to solve the mystery, but it does nothing of the kind. One sympathizes with the author, though. The one or two people left alive who might shed some light on past events are understandably defensive and unwilling to be interviewed. Like an Agatha Christie novel, this is a puzzle with a finite number of participants, all of whom are potential suspects. The book does have its odd lapses. The Baroness’s background is largely untouched, although she was almost certainly on the lam, but from what? Likewise, Treherne chooses to believe the hausfrau, Margret Wittmer, who seems the most persuasively sane of the lot in her quoted account, but the very tidiness she exudes smells of rat.
The identity of this book is a fluctuating thing. The dust jacket’s exotic fauna silhouetted against twilit ocean, and its blurb promising the “true story” of “strange events” that have “teased and mystified investigators,” would seem inclined on propelling the book onto the “occult” shelf. On the other hand, the book is hung around a photo insert, that McGuffin of the true-crime yarn, that converts it into something like a novel with an affidavit. The homely aspect of the participants and the varying quality of the photographs somehow suggest ever more sinister possibilities. This is a feature the book shares with James Fox’s White Mischief,* along with the fact that their unsolved crimes are products of sultry, prewar colonial malaise, rife with grotesque details and operatic overtones, a correspondence shared by few other titles.
Another characteristic the two books have in common is that they are, consciously or not, satires. In Treherne’s book, as in Fox’s, locus, casting, and motivations are so impeccably “B” that it seems like a précis of the work of a cinéaste maudit run amok on the set of a Monogram Pictures jungle opera. The parade of Nazi stereotypes in the Galapagos at about the time of Hitler’s rise to power is a particularly deft accident. The Baroness, about whom one of the few hard facts we glean is that her brother was “high up” in the Nazi party, is a Venus in Furs of the old school. The Wittmers play the part of the scheming peasantry, and are later seen to have a mammoth portrait of Hitler hanging in the parlor. Friedrich Ritter himself is a caricatural lunatic saant, the kind that John Heartfield represented as claiming that human corns could predict the future.
Meanwhile, as the characters plot and stew, the island and its vegetation recede and flatten like stage scenery. Lingering in the margins is the plot of another book, the one in which petty human squabbles are mocked, then squelched, by volcanic eruption or tidal wave. Nothing of the sort happened here. Nature, apart from a few marauding boars, failed to notice the action center stage, thereby depriving all concerned of tragedy, the kind with a capital “T.” The characters had emigrated, at great expense, to a distant, tropical environ, only to engage in urban vice, and that they did so in as singular a place as the Galapagos Islands only makes the farce more grotesque. The transformation of the wild into the governable, which is the underlying ideal of Robinsonism, here reaches a kind of negative conclusion. Of course, similar forces, on a larger scale, were active in taming the world to the point where the lure of setting up like Robinson Crusoe has become obsolete. Moral litterbugs of all kinds have permanently returned the notion to literature.
February 2, 1984
Random House, 1983. ↩