Krakatoa erupted, and 36,000 died

March 30, 2003|By John R. Alden | John R. Alden,Special to the Sun

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester. HarperCollins. 432 pages. $25.95.

Simon Winchester is a British author who specializes in the kind of quirky nonfiction that British authors do better than anyone else. It's like a clever intellectual game -- start with an obscure subject, like the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (Winchester's The Professor and the Madman) or the origins of geography (his The Map That Changed the World) and poke into every courtyard and alley that opens onto the original topic. Points are awarded for odd facts, arcane vocabulary and unexpected connections, and the author that generates the most reader-to-reader enthusiasm wins.

Winchester's latest effort centers on the explosion of Krakatoa, a volcano in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra that erupted itself into oblivion in 1883. This was big news in the Victorian Era -- "It was the greatest detonation, the loudest sound, the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history, and it killed more than thirty-six thousand people."

But today, the impact of that catastrophe seems as ephemeral as the spectacular sunsets, "staining the crepuscular skies with vermilions and passion fruits and carmines and royal mauves," that resulted from the dust the great eruption blew into the stratosphere.

Krakatoa cleans up in the factoid category. In one chapter alone, Winchester reveals the recipe for Eau de Cologne, introduces us to a circus entertainer who caught cannonballs for a living, and comments on the arrival of the first frozen meat in Batavia (the colonial name for Jakarta). He also reviews the pseudoscience of ethogeological prediction (using unusual animal behavior to foretell things like earthquakes) and describes the more notable costumes worn to the 1883 masked ball at Batavia's Concordia Military Club.

It is no surprise that the author of a book about the Oxford English Dictionary revels in arcane words and derivations. His forts have machiolations and embrasures. He uses the Malay word amok (meaning a state of frenzy) to describe the behavior of his volcano. And in a footnote following a 19th-century quote from the New York World, he says "of baseball's World Series fame," implying that the Series got its name from sponsorship by that newspaper.

Is that really the etymology of our national pastime's national championship? Alas, a quick Web search uncovered an article in the fall 2001 newsletter of the Society for American Baseball Research that calls the putative link between the newspaper and the title a "myth that just won't die."

Winchester gets penalized big for that one.

So it all comes down to the category of unexpected connections. The author scores with his claim that the eruption of Krakatoa marked the birth of "the modern phenomenon known as the global village," and gets bonus points for tying his story to other works of quirky nonfiction like Nathaniel's Nutmeg, by Giles Milton, and Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet. But Winchester's talk of the Wallace Line and East Indies bio-geography is irrelevant (the Wallace Line passes 700 miles east of Krakatoa) and his effort to tie modern Islamic militancy to the Krakatoa cataclysm is at best far-fetched.

Entertaining? Absolutely. Smoothly written? Yes again. But in the end, Krakatoa doesn't match the standard Winchester set for himself with The Professor and the Madman. It's not even close.

John R. Alden is an archaeologist who works in the Middle East and the southern Andes. He has seen smoke issuing from Lascar, a volcano in northern Chile, watched red lava flowing down the flanks of Mount Etna in the Mediterranean, and can flake volcanic glass into razor-edged stone tools. Reading Krakatoa made him want to visit places Winchester describes, like the Sunda Strait and the great fjords on Greenland's eastern shore.

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