A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[REVIEW] Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Arch of Kerguelen

French journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann‘s 1993 The Arch of Kerguelen, originally published in 1993 by Flammarion of Paris and translated by Patricia Clancy for a 2000 publication by Four Walls Eight Windows, might be the only books I’ve ever read on the Kerguelen Islands. Even so, I can say with certainty that The Arch of Kerguelen easily sets the standard for all future books, and for all like books.

The Kerguelen Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Southern Ocean roughly equidistant from South Africa and Australia, were discovered in 1772 by the luckless French explorer Yves Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec, eventually included in the Fifth Republic’s French Southern and Antarctic Lands. There have been, as Kauffmann enumerates, innumerable plans to humanize the islands, starting with discussion in the salons of pre-Revolutionary Paris on settling dozens of luckless Acadian families in this open land. In the past century, in fact, there has been a more-or-less sustained human presence on the islands for most of the past century: Whaling ships have called at the islands’ harbours, people like the Bossière brothers of Normandy have tried to establish human colonies, imported rabbits and sheep have wrought havoc on native vegetation like the Kerguelen cabbage. To the author’s surprise, sheep herds and aquacultured salmon and whaling harbours can now be found on these the most isolated of islands.

No humans live there permanently, though, and none will. After several tries, the islands’ only human residents are scientists and researchers and support staff, rotated in and out. The Arch of Kerguelen of the title was sighted by Cook soon after the islands’ discovery, a great arch tens of metres high that seemed to welcome visitors to an interior notable now for being a void. Here, cartographers may impose names on the blanks in the islands’ maps while scientific researchers may here come to perform their delicate experiments, but no one stays, apart from those unfortunately buried in the graves at Port aux Français. Appropriately enough, the great modernizing dream of the Enlightenment, the belief of the philosophes in the flexibility of human beings, broke on the shores of the islands discovered in the Enlightenment’s last days. Kauffmann succeeds wonderfully in demonstrating, in a lucid prose style that survived translation, that the land’s apparent openness comes not from its openness to humanity but rather because it’s structurally irrelevant and unsuitable to humanity, because it is–in his word–“ahuman.”

Written by Randy McDonald

April 30, 2006 at 12:18 am

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