I get the occasional email from people who have found my website looking for information about Kerguelen. For some reason the idea of the place seems to captivate some people.
A while ago I’d heard about a book about the islands, by a Frenchman called Jean-Paul Kauffman. At New Year I finally got round to buying a copy of Voyage to Desolation Island (originally L’Arche des Kerguelen: voyage aux îles de la Désolation).
It was an interesting read for me, partly because I recognised some of the places. Kauffman’s writing strongly evoked the memories of the pervasiveness of the wind on the islands and the starkly beautiful landscape. He describes how the wind sounds different there, it isn’t broken up by trees and buildings and it roars across the landscape.
The translator, Patricia Clancy, has done an excellent job and added a few very useful notes on points of French culture. Only two things irritated me about the translation. The units of measurement had all been translated into American, forcing me to sit doing mental arithmetic every time I encountered a temperature. The other irritant was that some of the technical terms didn’t seem to be quite right.
Kauffman himself seems to have had a somewhat doom-laden approach to his trip to the islands, there’s almost no mention of the social life of Port aux Français. Of course, that probably varies from year to year, maybe the place was just especially lively when I was there.
Speaking of Port aux Français, I’d like a word with whoever it was at the publishers that decided to translate the place names on the map. It’s confusing to refer to Port aux Français in the text but then have to work out it’s marked as Frenchmen’s Harbour on the map!
The book also describes journeys to the islands made by various groups and individuals, before they became permanently inhabited. Disastrous commercial enterprises, malnourished scientists and military visitors have all left their traces among the grasses and bogs.
So, if you’ve been fascinated by the Kerguelen Islands ever since you first saw them alone on a mostly-blue atlas page or if you just have a strange obsession with remote and isolated places, this book is well worth reading.