Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book 115, Micronesia: "The Island of the Colorblind" by Oliver Sacks

Got an extension on my playwriting project! So I don’t have to feel absolutely guilty about updating here. FYI, we’re now moving into the territory of the subaltern who cannot speak: a region where there are incredibly few internationally available books actually written by citizens/residents of the countries described. 

This, of course, is problematic, but for now I’m going to revel in the opportunity to write about Oliver Sacks, famed neurologist and author of classics such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (I haven’t read any of his other books, mind you – just read about them on Boing Boing. But I’ve watched his TED talk!)

Seems I oughta read his other books. Sacks is one of those effortlessly eloquent British science boffins who’s not only passionate about his field but about life itself, and the words we use to describe it – in his preamble to this account of his neurological research voyages to the Pacific, he details his early love for explorer narratives: Captain Cook, Magellan, Dampier, Melville, even Professor Challenger and Dr Moreau.

There isn’t even that much science stuffed in here, especially in Book I, which involves his trip to the island of Pingelap in Micronesia, where a 19th century tsunami has left an island inbred enough to harbour a significant population of achromotopes (folks who are completely colourblind, not just the common red-green condition. Only rods in their retinae, no cones).

Easy enough to understand – the story therefore focuses on the pleasures (and occasional displeasures) of flying towards and living on this isolated tropical isle of imported spam and phosphorescent algae; also an unofficial anthropological study of what it means to be an achromotope (they call it “maskun”), aided by the experiences of Knut Nordby, a Norwegian psychologist and fellow achromotope who gasps in delight at finally finding his own tribe, as it were: a population of people who grow up understanding the condition of being oversensitive to light yet being mentally acute in every other way, able to spy the dimmest stars and night and tell which bananas are ripe, not from the colour, but from texture and smell.

There’s more science stuff in Book II: Cycad Island, which talks about a separate trip to Guam to investigate a form of quasi-Parkinson’s disease called lytico-bodig, whose cause has not yet been fully determined (though there’s a high chance it’s to do with eating food baked from the seeds of the cycad plants, which grow in abundance). Because of the medical mystery remaining here, there’s lots of explaining to do.

Consequently or nevertheless, it’s Book I: The Island of the Colourblind that’s more joyous to read – after all, it’s about a community of people who’re technically physically disabled but have little trouble rising above this, versus a story of old folks randomly going paralysed or catatonic (don’t worry too much: no-one born after 1962 seems to get lytico-bodig).

Wonderful little segue as well, when Sacks leaves Pingelap for the larger Micronesian island of Pohnpei, where he and his friends explore the thousand-year old ruins of the civilization of Nan Madol, which I only learned about last year from the forum discussion pages of Civilization V, and how it makes him consider:

Never heard of any of these before. How amazing, no, to excavate these obscure histories? Moments like these, the world seems so fantastically big.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Knut took out the cowrie necklace which Emma Edward had given him on Pingelap and, turning it over and over in his hands, started to reminisce about the trip. “To see an entire community of achromats has changed my entire perspective,” he said. “I am still reeling from all of these experiences. This has been the most exciting and interesting journey I will ever make in my life.”

When I asked him what stayed in his mind above all, he said, “The night fishing in Pingelap… that was fantastic.” And then, in a sort of dreamlike litany, “The cloudscapes on the horizon, the clear sky, the decreasing light and deepening darkness, the early luminous surf at the coral reefs, the spectacular stars and Milky Way, ad the shining flying fishes soaring over the water in the light from the torches.”

Next book: Jonathan M. Weisgall’s Operation Crossroads: the Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll, from the Marshall Islands.

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