November 25, 2010

sinking boat

Today is ESCAPE FROM THANKSGIVING — the day I interrupt your dinner by crowing constantly about my new book, among others. But since I’m about to get busy with a bird and a baster, I thought it might make more sense to provide you with this little excerpt.

The setting is the obscure Pacific island of Cristobol Minor, where our anti-hero André operates his unsavory but highly popular floating restaurant, “l’Arche”. In Chapter Two, he explains how he and his frightening business partner Marko landed on this particular island …

I’m curious, Louis: how long have you been with us, docked on the isle of Cristobal Minor? Have you even been ashore yet? Have you walked up the planks, passed that tin roofed guardhouse and the comical yellow stripe that marks the edge of international waters? Have you visited our hosts, the modest citizens of Cristobal Minor? Have you sampled the native crafts?

Or did you only just today emerge from the belly of whichever yacht you rode in on? Yes, judging from your paleness, your lack of a wealthy tan, the crispness of your pleats, I’d say you’ve just arrived.

But Louis: you must visit the island! That is, I hope you’ll get the opportunity. It is a beautiful place; up until just recently I would have also called the Cristobos a very welcoming people.

Cristobal Minor is a charming, charming little micro-nation, free as the wind and entirely alone out here in the great big sea, hundreds of kilometers from anything so tedious as a police force, a tax collector or a continent—a Libertarian utopia. This little bay is so placid in the summer months, the water such a remarkable shade of blue, and when the sun sets directly behind that volcanic mound at the center of the island it is the stuff of postcards. The hand-hewn planks of the pier, dilapidated as they are, lend the whole enterprise such an authentic glow of roughness, scrappiness, island-ness. The millionaires just lap it up. It’s a theme park for them, a Disneyland of poverty.

Poverty, yes. Cristobal Minor is poor, poor, poor! A tiny population supported by a sad little fleet of fishing boats, they have scraped by for a few hundred years under astonishingly bad conditions. In the stormy season, the entire island is regularly flooded. The topsoil is clogged with salt. All their tools for survival are imported on their fishing boats—leaky desperate things that regularly sink, taking entire families down at once. The only resource these thin, bent-over, inbred, struggling little people have ever had was a certain regular influx of fresh seafood, and subsisting on that they’ve clung, proudly, to this adorable pimple on the back of the ocean.

But you know. You’re aware, a man of your times, not one of those ostrich-headed deniers of bad news. The sea is not such a lovely young woman any more. Humanity has ridden her hard and given her diseases, and she’s bitter about it. In this region, the proud industrial fishing fleets of many nations used to deplete the sea of metric tons of sea life every calm day. But they don’t come here any more. The fish are all gone, eaten up on land. Dip a hook in these waters now and you’d best be very careful with what you reel in.

Overfishing is one culprit, the same old story told over and over in different seas. Those industrial fishermen loved the ocean, truly; they saw, in her, eternal youth and bottomless fortune. L’Arche, this very ship of ours, used to be one such boat: a purse seiner with Indonesian flags. She worked these very waters, and others close by. Each morning the captain would inscribe a ten kilometer circle on the surface of the ocean, lay down a floating net one thousand fathoms deep, then tightly cinch shut the bottom of the net like an upside-down coin purse—hence the name “purse seine”—thereby netting several hundred billion gallons of the living ocean in one bold scoop. The crew spent the rest of the day winching aboard and hacking apart every living thing within that doomed circumference. Tons and tons of fish, Louis, of every kind. Tuna mainly, but also swordfish, flying fish, dolphins, jellyfish, whales, giant squid—I dare say if mermaids ever existed, l’Arche caught one. And those fishermen, well, I doubt they would have released her from that net without first checking her market price.

And like all great industrial projects, this went swimmingly until it didn’t. But by the time the local tuna population—and by extension the population of Cristobal Minor—began to collapse, another problem was advancing: pollution. Floating plastic trash—microscopic bits of bags, water bottles, wrappers, tchotchkes, garbage of all kinds. Because we are only a few hundred kilometers, Louis, from a most astonishing sargasso sea of floating plastic trash. It has been growing steadily for twenty years at least and is still growing, faster today than ever.

I’ve had an occasion to boat out there, with Marko, to collect ingredients from some skittish gentlemen who wished to remain a certain distance from any sort of sovereign nation, for purely personal reasons. They hide their yacht in this trash pile; it disguises them beautifully from above. It’s astounding there. You can’t even see the water, just a mildly undulating landscape of glistening, fluttering garbage. Peer deeply into it and you begin to recognize your own history. That cork, that wrapper, that bottle of filtered water: did I consume those? Did I throw my trash in the sea, or did it blow there after I left it on the ground? Is that floating sandal the one I lost on my visit to Tahiti? That brightly colored sand bucket: didn’t I have one just like it when I was a child? Was I guilty even then? Was I already engineering the downfall of the hardscrabble citizens of Cristobal Minor?

Now, imagine yourself in the position of the Cristobos. The sea, which has always grudgingly provided, appears to be finished with you. The nets of the fishermen are bringing up only juice cartons and hairbrushes and mud. Given your desperation you might consider eating the hairbrushes, but soon you realize: your way of life is finished. You must abandon your island, leave it or die. You had almost nothing, but now you have even less. You stare out over the frothing ocean and fret; you huddle with your hare-lipped children and weep.

But then—imagine, the very next day or a day soon after, a strange man arrives on a mighty ship. He is immense, silent, coiffed in the trappings of exquisite wealth, serious and impressive … in other words, imagine that Marko shows up on your island in your moment of greatest need, bringing with him a supply of meat and some of the magical paper money that sailors can trade for things in far away ports. And Marko explains to you in his hypnotizing voice that all is not lost, there is still one thing you own, one thing you can sell … and that is your freedom.

The story of Cristobal Minor’s nationhood is curious, slightly ridiculous. About two hundred years ago it was claimed for strategic reasons by Argentine admirals. They shipped a dubious set of paupers here: displaced Mapuche indians, refugees from other conquered islands, plus a smattering of European criminals, accompanied by rabbits and pigs and dogs. They were dropped off with little more than a wave and the promise of a new bustling port and all the prosperity that might come with it. But that seed never sprouted; the schemers of this plan had mis-measured the winds, prevailing currents and overall reachability of the place. So the immigrants sat here, forgotten, for some time under the Argentine flag. Their first year was hard: the rabbits quickly eradicated what little indigenous flora existed, then the dogs ate the rabbits, then the men ate the pigs and the dogs, then they began to eat one another. Eventually they learned to fish.

But one day, unmarked by anyone here, the Argentines grew weary of owning this island and its inhabitants who seemed always to be appealing to their government for aid. So the magnanimous parent country did what birds do to their offspring: it pushed Cristobal Minor out of the nest. In a pitched ceremony onboard a visiting gunboat, this island was granted self-determination, wished good luck and good riddance. An orphaned island in a rough sea, it has longed ever since to be declared useful and invaded anew.

Long story short: Marko saved this island. Rescued it. He cleaned it up, made it pretty, put it to work. Cristobal Minor, once a humanitarian disaster, is now a destination. It’s a place for yachtsmen to yacht to, and yachtsmen need such places; the very difficulty of reaching this island makes landing here a trophy pursuit. Once moored, they might visit the tiny beach, where market forces have called into existence a slapdash but cheerful main drag for Cristobos to hawk their freshly adopted native crafts and perform recently composed traditional music. Or else the millionaires can sit on the decks of their mighty yachts, watching the sun set on the amazing blue water. admiring one another’s pleasure craft.

They may swim, too … if their yachts are equipped with pools. Alas, swimming in the lagoon itself is not recommended, not in the least. Pollution, you know, is what tints the water so sparkling. Microscopic plastic shards glinting in the sun, a pound of invisible crap in every gallon. It leaves a bit of a disagreeable slime on one, although it also waxes the hulls of the ships, which I’m told makes them faster. And the sea life that still survives in this undead lagoon, well … if you need proof that the ocean is angry with humankind, just try swimming to shore from this boat. The water is thick with the deadly box jellyfish known as the Sea Wasp. Dozens of them will swarm on you, paralyzing you with agonizing toxins from their tendrils. If the pain alone doesn’t kill you, you’ll feel your heart stop, your skin swell and burst. Then a local population of sickly deformed eels will nip away your flesh, and a host of tiny black crabs will pick your bones clean with remarkable efficiency.

Still, in lieu of swimming we have sunbathing, shopping, snapshots, the aforementioned native crafts, yacht racing in the plastic-lubricated waters, et cetera. All day long, so much for a millionaire to do. But when night falls, there is only one thing: l’Arche! This restaurant—my restaurant—is the anchor of the entire project. This is what draws the millionaires: my food! My knowledge, my senses, my skill, the unclassifiable essence of my soul that I pour into every dish.

And, yes, the select ingredients.

But now … who knows what the future holds for the cursed population of Cristobal Minor? One thing is certain: we are done here. Our welcome has expired.

Did you hear those gunshots? It’s hard, I know, to pick out sounds through the wind and rain and noise, but I think I heard Marko firing at the shore. There’s a surly phalanx of Cristobos still down there, hiding behind that tin guard house, gathering their numbers, sharpening their axes, chanting epithets in that unique Spanish pidgin of theirs. I think they’re waiting for an opening, a chance to storm us. But don’t worry; he won’t give them one. He’s an exquisite shot, our Marko.

Still, I’d best check in with the overall situation; then I will return with our first course. Here’s another sip of wine to hold you. I promise I won’t be long.

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