I first read The Birth of an Island by Francois Clement in 1977 or 78 and it seemed to me an odd and intriguing book. It’s one of those books that I mentally put on a pedestal so that I felt I had to wait for the “right time” to re-read it. I can’t say that this mythical “right time” ever arrived but I ran out of anything new to read and I had been thinking about it so I finally re-read it.
This book was originally written in French. Being mono-lingual myself, I read the English translation of course. The main character and narrator is a young Frenchman who cannot keep a job. His father, a man of some influence, gets him a position as an administrator on the small Polynesian island of Raevavae, effectively exiling him so that he will no longer be an embarrassment to the family. The position turns out to be little more than a title.
Then, on the same morning he arrives on Raevavae…
Suddenly, while we were looking at the blinding sea under the grey sky, the universe shuddered. I’ve looked for a better expression, a less theatrical one, but I haven’t found one. Nothing happened, really. Not a leaf moved, not a blade of grass. But something suddenly changed, so unmistakably that we looked at each other, all three of us. I think it was only a sudden change in atmospheric pressure. But we suspected nothing. We all thought of an earthquake. We looked at the summit of Hiro behind us, but there, too, nothing was moving. And then, all of a sudden, the sky began to move. Without our feeling a thing, the clouds that had been gathering over the island since morning broke up and rolled away like handfuls of dust toward the southwest…
This event is followed by a violent cyclone which is strange in that it comes from the wrong direction. After it’s over the approximately 700 survivors, of which fewer than ten are Europeans, clean up, rebuild and life goes on. The radios have gone silent but at first this is no more than a worrisome puzzle. It is only when three survivors in a lifeboat wash up on the beach that they learn that the rest of the world has been destroyed in an atomic war.
Still, life on the island goes on pretty much as before. The complete destruction of civilization seems a distant event. Things change gradually. As supplies from the industrial world run out the survivors have to learn to make do with what they can find on the island. Some of the natives want to return to “the old ways” which, it is hinted, include cannibalism. Other natives want to help the handful of Europeans to preserve civilization. They set up a simple government. More survivors, natives from another island arrive. More conflict.
The book takes the form of the main character’s long letter to a grandson many years after the events in the story and is very typical of what you would expect such a letter to be. There is much rambling and philosophizing. The latter is often ridiculous, in my opinion, but interesting. For example…
How, indeed, could we expect to progress if we were unable, for lack of incentives, to get the people who seemed best qualified to fill the jobs we were planning to create?
The answer seems obvious. It wasn’t to me. Everyone should do what he likes. Individual tastes differ enough so that for every job, there’ll be at least one person who likes it. A job that nobody wants is always artificial and useless.
The Birth of an Island has a strangely pleasant, laid back feeling, not at all what you normally expect in post-apocalypse stories. Even the most serious conflicts do not seem all that serious, partly because the story takes place on an “island paradise” and partly, I think, because the author partially gives away the ending at the very beginning of the book. You know from the start that these people are going to build a new society; the story is about how they do it and that is interesting.