The Galapagos Affair
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.