Reviews: Moby Dick, Modern Times & Kon Tiki

Here are my comments on these three classics, in order of “publication.”

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or, the Whale came out in 1851. It was not famous when he was alive but entered the American cannon after some time. All I remember from “reading” it as a teen (summer reading, IIRC) was “Call me Ishmael,” which is the first line of the book. That’s a pity as the book is truly a masterpiece in (a) its depiction of the American whaling industry and (b) its scintillating, sometimes surreal, writing. Unfortunately, I lost my notes in the ebook I downloaded (it’s out of copyright :), but there are gems — a la Shakespeare, Twain or Dickens — on every page. Take this bit about Ahab, the obsessive captain who carries an ivory leg in the place of that which the White Whale ripped off:

Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze, too, upon that ribbed and dented brow; there also, you would see still stranger foot-prints—the foot-prints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.

But on the occasion in question, those dents looked deeper, even as his nervous step that morning left a deeper mark. And, so full of his thought was Ahab, that at every uniform turn that he made, now at the main-mast and now at the binnacle, you could almost see that thought turn in him as he turned, and pace in him as he paced; so completely possessing him, indeed, that it all but seemed the inward mould of every outer movement.

This is an amazing book in terms of writing and drama (the real event it’s based on — a whale sinking a ship — was tragedy embodied). FIVE STARS.

Charlie Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936. Although “talkies” had arrived, he decided to leave his Tramp character silent, as it helped the audience (and me!) focus on the non-verbal performance. The plot (in case you didn’t know) was the inhumanity of factory life and dehumanizing efficiency. (Chaplin was inspired by Gandhi, who opposed industrialization.)

The movie is funny, clever and still relevant. FIVE STARS.

Kon Tiki (1948/1950) is Thor Heyerdahl’s telling of his expedition to sail on a pae-pae raft made of balsa wood logs (named “Kon Tiki” after the god of the sun) from Peru to the South Pacific. Heyerdahl wanted to prove that it was possible to sail (ahead of the trade winds) from east to west, and thus show how the Polynesians could have migrated (or fled) from South America. (This hypothesis seems to be only partially supported by facts.) Here he describes how they introduced themselves to the Polynesians after 101 days at sea:

An uneducated but highly intelligent gathering of brown people stood waiting for me to speak. I told them that I had been among their kinsmen out here in the South Sea islands before, and that I had heard of their first chief, Tiki, who had brought their forefathers out to the islands from a mysterious country whose whereabouts no one knew any longer. But in a distant land called Peru, I said, a mighty chief had once ruled whose name was Tiki. The people called him Kon-Tiki, or Sun-Tiki, because he said he was descended from the sun. Tiki and a number of followers had at last disappeared from their country on big pae-paes; therefore we six thought that he was the same Tiki who had come to those islands. As nobody would believe that a pae-pae could make the voyage across the sea, we ourselves had set out from Peru on a pae-pae, and here we were, so it could be done.

After 600 pages of foreboding in Moby Dick, I was much happier to read this shorter, more hopeful, and real story. What I found fascinating is how the six Norwegians were constantly surrounded by fish, sharks and dolphins — all of which they killed and ate with ease, due to their abundance. Someone told me that Heyerdahl’s grandson made the same voyage more recently (2006, I read on wikipedia) and saw only one shark on the whole way. That reality indicates that it may be impossible to “catch your food” on such a long voyage. Tragic.

I also give Kon Tiki FIVE STARS.

Addendum (Oct 2023): Plastiki sails…

How lucky we are to have such books and films!

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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