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Krakatoa — creative non-fiction at its very best

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January 3, 2009 by Debbie Hindley

Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: The day the world exploded, 27 August 1883, Penguin Viking, Camberwell, Australia, 2003, pp 432 hb $35 pb $25

Reading this book became an imperative for me following the tragic tsunami of 26 December 2004. In common with most of the world I felt great sorrow at the enormous loss of life and the devastating affects that befell those who survived the wall of water that swept across the vast Indian Ocean. I sought answers for why and how a natural disaster on such a gargantuan scale could occur. Winchester’s Krakatoa, I felt sure, would help to explain the causes of such a tragedy. My confidence in Winchester was not misplaced. I learnt a great deal more that I anticipated. None the least that writing non-fiction can be creative and entertaining as well as instructive. Winchester is a master of the craft of writing and leader in creative non-fiction.

Ostensibly Krakatoa seems to be an historical account of the explosion and implosion of the Javanese volcano Krakatoa. It is much more. It is a geological treatise, a slice of history and a critique of colonialism and religious fundamentalism. Winchester gives an in-depth description of geological conditions that cause the natural disasters of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis to occur. Winchester also discusses the development of the discipline Geology and the intrigues and petty jealousies frequently found in academia.

Simon Winchester is the prodigious and prolific author of one fiction and thirteen non-fiction works. Krakatoa joins his other bestsellers, most notably The Surgeon of Crowthorne, the history of the Oxford Dictionary, and The Map that Changed the World. Winchester studied Geology at Oxford, a discipline he is clearly passionate about, although he is an equally accomplished historian. Before he began writing in earnest he had a career in journalism. Besides his fourteen books he has also written for Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian and the National Geographic.

Krakatoa was meticulously researched by Winchester. He used a wide range of sources, including diaries, delving into the archives documents of several governments and companies, articles and books published by geologists, biographies, newspaper articles from the period, correspondence, ships logs and Admiralty charts. Winchester was not Euro-centric in his historical research. He consulted local Indonesian histories, including the ancient history by Ranggawarsita, the Book of Kings. He interviewed Indonesian academics and ordinary citizens in pursuit of knowledge on his subject. The pinnacle and truest measure of his thorough research is demonstrated by his visits to Java. He first saw Anak Krakatoa or child of Krakatoa, the island that emerged fifty years after Krakatoa submerged into the Sundra Strait, in 1970’s. Anak Krakatoa has been steadily growing since. Winchester returned over twenty years later and was taken out to the island by fishermen from a nearby island. My pulse raced at his vivid description of this experience of his visit. It provided an insight into the fascination that humans have for risky adventure when it comes to volcanoes. Winchester’s research combined the discussion of various disciplines with indisputable facts and heart-racing emotion.

Krakatoa is well illustrated and well organised. It has several diagrams of geological features and conditions. There are photographs of a number of people, well known (Charles Darwin) and people who would have faded into obscurity except for Winchester. Maps and charts from the past and present are included. Paintings and lithographs of the natural disaster are also reproduced. Two of these depict the tsunami that resulted and demonstrate the sheer force of the wall of water. An advertisement for a circus visiting Batavia at the time of the eruption shows the thoroughness of Winchester’s research. While Winchester has not included a bibliography in the book, he has a chapter on further recommended reading. He also advises readers not to watch the 1950 Hollywood film. A comprehensive index completes the work.

When Krakatoa erupted over 36,000 people died. It was a catastrophe but not nearly as catastrophic as the 2004 tsunami that killed over 250,000 people from several countries around the Indian Ocean. Reading Krakatoa I was struck by the parallels with the two events, not just the locality of the natural disaster and loss of life. One similarity is provided through improved worldwide communications. The advent of the global telegraph meant that the world was alerted to the eruption fairly quickly, it was indeed the first natural disaster to be reported by telegraph. I also felt that Winchester was being prophetic and that the book subtly warned of further natural disasters, although I doubt even Winchester could have imagined the magnitude of the recent calamity. A further lesson is provided by Winchester who stated that the first rebellion by religious zealots against colonialism followed the eruption of Krakatoa and that the Bali bombings of 2002 were a further manifestation of that original religious fanaticism. His instruction demonstrates the vital importance of the world’s governments and people to provide immediate and ongoing aid to the recent victims, to help them recover their lives.

Winchester is a master researcher and story teller. Through Krakatoa he demonstrates that social science can come alive, be relevant and reach a vast and varied audience. This is outstanding creative non-fiction.