Country Focus: Mauritius
Darwin’s Wink: A Novel of Nature and Love
Originally published: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
My edition: Picador, 2005. 274 pgs.
On an island off the coast of Mauritius, Fran is attempting to save the mourner-bird from extinction and restore natural habitat. Still floundering after her failed marriage and the recent and mysterious death of her lover Satish, she struggles to communicate with Christian, who is fresh off the plane from a stint as a Red Cross delegate in the Bosnian War and tormented by the memory of a lover he left to an unknown fate. They both try to save themselves through distraction. Fran buries herself in her work and Christian romances a Mauritian woman. Predictably, their pain draws them together but “Darwins’ Wink” – an act of god, the random determinate, the stochastic factor – could change everything.
Darwin’s Wink is full of backstory, including Christian’s work with the Red Cross and his love affair with Nermina, a Bosnian woman, Fran’s marriage and life in Berkeley, and Fran’s relationship with Satish. Anderson kept my interest by alternating those storylines with the main one and kept me guessing about key points: What happened to Satish? Who is killing the wildlife on Egret Island? What happened to Nermina and why does Christian feel so guilty about it?
Steeped in Darwinism, extinction and survival, Darwin’s Wink offers an interesting juxtaposition between Christian’s earlier efforts to rescue a human population from extinction and Fran’s determination to save the mourner-bird from a similar fate:
“Campaigns in California, protect the spotted owl, the redwood tree: a long tradition of respect and seriousness. Is it a first-world luxury, wonders Fran, the natural result of our ill-gotten wealth, our surfeit, that we can turn our attention back to birds and animals and plants?”
The novel is unusual for being written almost entirely in the present tense. Anderson’s dreamy, wordy prose made me feel like I was reading the words of a wanna-be guru who is a tad too stuck on her own deep thoughts:
“Nature is a place not of silence but of senses. Words are like a thing detached, like my mind. Silence is broken when our bodies meet; my body understands this language, but when we are apart my mind struggles to place words upon the language, so that I can comprehend.
There is nothing to comprehend. Perhaps that is what some people would call love.”
Although the book’s subtitle declares that it is a “novel of nature”, Anderson states that mourner-bird is a non-existent species dreamed up for this book. Her descriptions of Egret Island’s flora and fauna are vague and consist of little more than lists of animals and plants that she probably pulled out of a visitor’s guide.
There is a certain irony that the people working to rid Egret Island of invasive species are transplants themselves. Fran is American, Christian is Swiss and Sean, their boss, is Irish. Alison Anderson, an American, has visited Mauritius and Ile aux Aigrettes, but there’s no escaping the fact that this book was written by a non-native. Mauritians play only bit parts in Darwin’s Wink, the largest going to Christian’s girlfriend, Asmita, and another going to a séga dancer. Through them, Anderson hints at the poverty and cultural struggles faced by the average Mauritian, but mainly Darwin’s Wink is about western angst.
In my book (or, what Mauritius means to me and maybe you, too)
When it comes to Mauritius, I’m a dodo
Mauritius doesn’t mean anything to me, because before this project, I’d never even heard of Mauritius. However, the island’s most famous (albeit long extinct) inhabitant is part of our cultural literacy – the dodo bird. A mere 80 years after Portugese landed on the island and first encountered the flightless birds (by the late 1600s), the dodos were wiped out. Ironically, the bird has gained immortality via the popular expressions “dead as a dodo”, “going the way of the dodo” and the insults “dodo” and “dodo brain.”