Book Review: Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

When I gave my dad a copy of Life of Pi to read, he recommended I read Kon-Tiki, noting that it is a typical survival-at-sea story that may have helped inspire Martel’s Life of Pi.

After reading it, I do think my dad is right. This nonfiction piece follows Thor Heyerdahl, who hypothesized that humans from the east populated the islands in the South Seas, pointing to evidence from mythology, history, and even biology. He set out to prove that this hypothesis could be true by building an ancient-style raft out of balsa wood and rope.

The raft had no motor and was mostly subject to the ocean currents. You couldn’t pay most people enough to take such a voyage.

This is a classic adventure tale of six men at sea. They travel from South America to the islands in the South Seas (they aim for whichever one they can safely land on, given the cumbersome raft and the sharp reefs). They must survive at sea for quite some time, which they find is rather easy to do. Not only do they have provisions on board, but at times they are bombarded with flying fish, and they find fishing for their preferred dinners easy enough to accomplish.

Their voyage is not without danger, of course. They encounter sharks, as well as some specifies of marine life that had not been known to exist. Not to mention that they are crammed on a raft with a single make-shift cabin and moving floorboards.

The time at sea is my favorite part: prior to this, we follow Heyerdahl as he tries to convince others that his thesis could be true, and we follow his obstacles as he tries to scrape a voyage together with five willing crewmates. Perhaps the journey at sea is all the more meaningful because of the wind-up and the fact that we know what struggles Heyerdahl went through for the mere opportunity to put his life at risk.

Because of all the struggles, the time on the islands when they finally do arrive is all the sweeter (it’s not really a spoiler that they lived, as he is telling us the story from after the fact). The edition I read includes a reader’s supplement with pictures of the raft and some of the sea creatures they encountered, which helped me to visualize the tale.

I have written before, when reviewing nonfiction, that nonfiction is not my preference. I do not like nonfiction presented as facts only, or boring encyclopedia entries (otherwise, I would simple read a short report on the topic and move on). I appreciate works that create a compelling main character and storyline that pulls me through the facts. This was one of them. I did want to finish. That, to me, is a mark of good fiction.

Of course, it should be noted that the work is the record of a 1947 expedition, and the language is translated. That said, some of the ideas and language are a bit outdated; still, it doesn’t detract from the fact that a group of six willingly risked their lives to prove that something that happened long in the past was possible.

I do find connection to Life of Pi. Encountering undiscovered marine life, leaving “home” with a preposterous theory in mind that is somehow proven by the journey, and leaving the “reader” with an inspiring tale. The novel was translated into dozens and dozens of languages, and it was recently made into a film which I have yet to see. Needless to say, the world is captivated by Heyerdahl’s ambition.

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