‘A Sphere of Symbols’: Thor Heyerdahl’s Maldive Mystery

Photo of Culture Trip
26 December 2016

The Maldive Mystery has been heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies in its treatment of the culture and people of the Maldives. However, as Jonathan Guilford attests, Heyerdahl’s book remains acutely powerful because of its ability to meld history and legend, truth and fiction.

Thor Heyerdahl | © Siren/WikiCommons

‘La tua beltà – chissà averla che impegno –
ardendo nell’ampolla se ne va: volevo
solo dire ‘beltà’.’

‘Your beauty – who knows what duty in having it –
flaring in the phial it leaves: I wanted
only to say ‘beauty’.’

Norwegian ethnographer, Thor Heyerdahl, is not known for being a good historian. This is evident from a quick Google search; sifting through the results pulls up the words such as ‘mistakes’, ‘incorrect’ and ‘wrong’ in connection with Heyerdahl. However, these inaccuracies are irrelevant when one assesses the enjoyment his writing evokes.

To demand that the reader form their opinion of Heyerdahl’s work in line with the truth of history – did Sri Lankans arrive in the Maldives en masse? Did a sun cult precede a Buddhist population that preceded the present-day Muslim society? – is to demand that the layman subscribe to a particular specialist’s code of ethics, and shun everything that falls outside it. This is too much to ask, especially when Heyerdahl’s The Maldive Mystery is such a completely joyous experience.

Theroux compared Heyerdahl to a ‘hack writer of detective stories’. There is some truth to that, and the author revels in the cheapness of his narrative. The Maldive Mystery is a chronicle of his time spent in the Maldives, unearthing various relics and trying to piece together the islands’ pre-Muslim history. It is also patterned after clichéd detective stories; only, instead of a hysterical broad on the other end of a phone, we have a mysterious photo from a colleague appearing in the mail. Instead of a washed-up private detective narrating to us through his last few sips of bourbon, we have Heyerdahl staring at a ceiling fan and admitting his ‘embarrassment’ at being so woefully unprepared for the task ahead. Throughout the book, as in a detective novel, everything is a key to be fitted in a lock: individual elements return again and again, a distinctive type of masonry referred to as ‘fingerprint masonry’, the stupas dotted around the islands, the iconography of the sun – just as the same clues are pieced together by a brilliant investigator in a myriad of different ways as elements enter and leave his novel’s web of relationships.

Maldive Mystery, Thor Heyerdahl | © Ballantine Books

Some sections of The Maldive Mystery even begin to feel like cliches from genres not yet invented: the rapid-fire coffee-table chat that closes the book, during which various members of the expedition to the islands generously explain the answer to all riddles as they complete each others’ sentences. It has the feel of a hyper-stylized, faux-nostalgic director like Quentin Tarantino.

The ready availability of this library of cliches to the reader of today, in the new millennium, makes Heyerdahl’s book all the more gratifying. This received narrative, pre-packaged, lends logic and integrity to the author’s writing which gives the reader a firm grip on it. This is utterly necessary when the reader reaches the final 100 pages, where The Maldive Mystery transforms from an amusing travelogue into something much more interesting.

To approach The Maldive Mystery from a different perspective, let us look at Jorge Luis Borges‘ essay Forms of a Legend – which explores various retellings of a story about the Buddha: ‘The chronology of India is unreliable; my erudition is even more so; Koeppen and Herman Beckh are perhaps as fallible as the compiler who has attempted this note; it would not surprise if my history of the legend was itself legendary, formed of substantial truth and accidental errors.’ It recalls a fragment of his To Leopold Lugones, published in the collection Dreamtigers, in which accidents of historical reconstruction place Borges in the same time and place as another man: a dead man. What is clear here is Borges’ sense of peace in the fluidity of history: that the legendary is not something to be judged by the historian’s ethic, exemplified by Theroux; instead it should be remarked upon, enjoyed, and, even if only privately, longed for. The legendary is the natural evolution of linguistic relationships: in that fragment, Borges references the dissolution of ‘water in water’. The reshaping of connections between linguistic objects – in these cases ‘Borges’ and ‘Leopold’ – are nothing but the rotation of a ‘sphere of symbols’.

We are treading closely here to the current of post-structuralism, of Derrida and of the myths of ‘time’ and ‘history’, and the contingency and arbitrariness of any claim to ‘truth’. We don’t have to go so far into a movement that quickly began to take itself far too seriously, however, to find an expression of the joy that one can find in Thor Heyerdahl’s book. Andrea Zanzotto, an Italian poet, who is typically considered part of the post-structuralism current – even if many of his contentions place him firmly outside it – illustrates this joy perfectly well in his collection La Beltà. Derridean deferral, in which meaning is endlessly coursing through the network of language with no clear ending point, becomes a sort of game in this collection, teasing the reader, staying always ‘più in là’ (‘further ahead’). That lightning-bolt, that is where joy is: to witness the explosion of language, to trace the currents of its flow, to dance in the sphere of symbols.
Watch a short book review on Thor Heyerdahl‘s Maldive Mystery below:

‘The last king was made a sultan by a pious foreigner who came by sea and started local history.’

Heyerdahl has incredible facility with his prose, and this sentence is as perfect as anything written by the masters. It repeats the motif of the author’s obsessions: the sea, the currents, the diaspora, the oral tradition. He sees himself as the reverse of this initial Muslim traveler who peacefully converted the Maldivian way of life and set about eradicating traces of the islands’ former society. The operation is the linguistic equivalent of Heyerdahl’s famous Kon-Tiki expedition, in which the author successfully navigated the open seas on a primitive raft to prove that humans of pre-history were capable of migrating across the oceans. In The Maldive Mystery, he is building new rafts: assertions about linguistic coincidences, tales of conversations with museum curators, explanations of ancient trade routes in precious shells. With these rafts he crosses the world, bringing influence from and to a vast number of countries, jumping through impossibly remote relationships between disparate pieces of evidence, connecting everywhere to the Maldives, a nation that becomes nothing but another realm in the sphere of symbols, while the reader, almost in stupefaction, can do nothing but sit back and laugh at the hilarious exuberance of it all.

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