THE PUBLISHERS OF Krakatoa: T h e Day the World Exploded (Viking 432pp £16.99) should be very careful into whose hands it falls. It is all too easy to imagine some staring- eyed Dr Strangelove in a Texan bunker feeling personally challenged by the claim that its subject is ‘the greatest detonation, the loudest sound, the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded history’. Simon Winchester makes the challenge quite explicit: not even the atomic tests of the Cold War, he says, can begin to rival the magnitude of Krakatoa.
For the last two hundred years, it has been something of a cliche to tremble before the might and majesty of nature – but when it comes to ‘shock and awe’, the statistics that surround the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 are hard to beat. The explosion blasted the entire island apart and sent a tsunami 135 feet high crashing into nearby towns. It created a noise that was heard over 13 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Thousands of European and American meteorologists, not knowing what they were witnessing, measured the pressure wave it sent seven times round the world – ‘an earthquake in the air’, as Simon Winchester expresses it – and the traces of its volcanic dust are still visible in polar ice cores and in the stunted rings of growing trees. It killed more than 36,000 people.
Writing about a natural disaster ought, in theory, to be pretty simple, even though everyone knows the Krakatoa and plot before you start. Nature still does massive set pieces much better and more graphically than even the best computer simulators, and there are no complications of motive or character to slow down the action. It should be a natural for a Hollywood film.
But Winchester is shrewd enough to realise that a very big bang is still only a bang. The interest of Krakatoa and of this book is conveyed best not in exclamation marks and jaw-dropping statistics, but through calm explanations and with the author’s unerring instinct for telhng ded. The nightmarish descriptions of Dutch expatriates and Java natives running in terror before an advancing wall of water, or the Dutch paddle-steam gunship picked up by the sea and dumped more than two mdes inland, tell less about the horror of the event than does the description of shps edging down Java’s Sunda Strait months later, past the scene of the eruption, and nuzzling their way sickeningly through floating pumice and decomposing bodies. It is the ‘sofi sort of crushing sound’ made by the passage of those ships that stays in the mind, not the big bang. It is the stuff 0f nightmares.
A film-maker might have more success with the Dutch expatriates dancing and drinking like passengers on the Titanic, in boozy ignorance of the cataclysm that is preparing itself under their feet – but Winchester delves below the surface to show the massive plates of the earth’s crust grinding and jarring inexorably together above a seething cauldron of molten rock. The timescale is immense: this is a disaster that was thousands of years in the making. –
When Hollywood tries, incidentally, it fails. Winchester writes off the 1947 movie Krakatoa East of Java as ‘a cinematic joke’; a judgement which is supported by the discovery that the volcano, or what remains of it, is S actually west ofJava. That is not to say, m though, that Winchester himself is : , incapable of occasionally over-egging the pudding. A circus elephant which ran amok a few days before the eruption is called in evidence of the amazing ability of animals to foresee natural disasters. ‘Curious’, ponders Winchester speculatively – but, since the animal was locked secretly in an hotel bedroom, not as curious as if it had done no damage at all.
Rampaging elephants are the stuff of tabloid newspapers: the real achievement of this book is its quiet celebration of the irresistible power of two caravels the everyday. It is the common man, not the volcano, which triumphs in the end – the nervous fishermen who returned to cast their nets in the waters of Krakatoa; the lighthouseman whose family was killed, but who returned phlegmatically to work with a new light beside the shattered old one; or even the boatmen who carry travellers today to the still-smoking remnants of the shattered island. Just six months after the eruption, an intrepid biologist found a single spider on what seemed to be a sterile pile of rock and ash – within three years there were flowering plants and shrubs, and in twenty, new forests were covering what was left of the mountainside.
But you can’t afford to be too sentimental about humanity. Fire Mountain (Bloomsbury 239pp £14.99), by Peter Morgan, describes the eruption of Mount Pele on the French Caribbean island of Martinique in 1902, and mentions in passing the looters who stripped the burned and asphyxiated bodies in the streets (‘a watch here, a necklace there’), while in Volcano in Paradise (Methuen 320pp £14.99), Phi1 Davison reminds the former Cabinet Minister Clare Short of a quote she would probably rather forget. With thousands of refugees hud- dled in shelters on Montserrat, she criticised their pleas for aid. ‘They’ll be wanting golden elephants next,’ she said, from her comfortable Whitehall office.
Officials don’t come out well in any of these books. Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from them, if you happen to live on the slopes of a volcano, is that when the authorities start telling you that it’s extinct and there’s no danger, it’s time to head for the airport.