A striking narrative of a man's inadvertent discovery of the life force that persists in the most secluded of places-and isolated of beings
After the death of his father, Alfred Van Cleef-the last of a family of Dutch Jews-learns that he is unable to have children. Seeking the remotest spot on the planet, far from the gleefully reproducing couples of Amsterdam, Van Cleef picks a forbidding island in the Indian Ocean, a bizarrely bureaucratic French weather station, two thousand miles from the nearest continent.
Finally entrenched on this lonely, wind-battered rock-following an eight-year odyssey to obtain a visiting permit and three weeks' rough passage-Van Cleef anticipates a total escape from the sexual frenzy of humanity: the island, ironically named Amsterdam, is inhabited solely by a group of thirty-six men. Yet this stark environment turns out to house a riotously mating society of albatrosses, sea elephants, fur seals-and especially bdelloid rotifers, an all-female species able to reproduce without males. It is in this unlikely setting that Van Cleef is forced to reckon with his most profound existential concerns.
With wry humor and probing insight, Van Cleef weaves geography, natural history, and biology into this original narrative of a lost island and a man, finally found.
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Alfred Van Cleef is a novelist, journalist, and producer of radio documentaries. For twenty years, he was a reporter for the leading Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. He lives in Amsterdam (Holland), where he is working on a novel.
Rising out of the southernmost Indian Ocean, halfway between Australia and Africa, is a tiny island, an extinct volcano, that is one of the most isolated places in the world. Named Amsterdam by a Dutch explorer in the 17th century, it is only six miles around and is now claimed by the French, who won't allow anyone to stay there to visit the island's weather station for more than two days. In this idiosyncratic memoir, van Cleef (The Lost World of the Berberovic Family) gives a lengthy account of the years he spent wrangling with France's Department of Southern Lands in order to get permission to visit the island. He then tells of the three-week sea voyage to get there and his seven-week sojourn on the rocky protrusion, which has little to offer except punishing winds, treacherous marshes, furiously mating seals, and eccentric meteorologists and biologists, whom he identifies only by monikers such as "the Ascetic" and "the Dreamer." Van Cleef's descriptions of the island are clever, but the real fun is the subtle ways in which he uses his dry sense of humor to lampoon French bureaucrats, who, he implies, need any patch of land to help them maintain their shrinking sphere of influence in the world. Illus. not seen by PW.
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