Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Kurt Vonnegut had the invaluable ability of pointing out all the truly ridiculous aspects of our lives hiding right beneath our noses, and few are the works where he does it better than Galapagos. The story follows a group of random people who, through sheer coincidence, are stranded on the titular islands and become the sole progenitors for a new, and somewhat different human race.
Table of contents
Kurt Vonnegut Opens an Evolutionary Path
The question as to why humans specifically evolved in the way they have remains an open one despite our best efforts, especially considering the mystery of our brain, which kept on developing while offering us no discernible advantages over stronger predators for millions of years. We’ve grown accustomed to the seemingly stable structure of our world, full of meaning, but in Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut shows us just how fleeting it all is, and how our own evolution betrayed us.
When it comes to Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut, summary texts which capture the entirety of the strange tale are a little more difficult to compose, but I will try my best. The novel is told through the point of view of a narrator living one million years in the future, looking back on the year 1986, when he was already a ghost following a fatal ship-building accident. More precisely, he takes a look at a group of rather strange and different people, all preparing to embark on “The Nature Cruise of the Century”, meant to show them the titular Galapagos islands.
After exploring each of those people and the strange twists of fate by which they all found themselves together (being a ghost conveniently allows the narrator to peer inside their heads and histories), the story moves along by preparing a dastardly twist of fate. Unbeknownst to all our characters, Ecuador happens to be at war, and a global economic crisis cripples the world at large.
After widespread looting and violence makes its way to the resort, the ragtag group of misfits has no choice but to embark on the largely-stripped boat and to set sail in any particular direction. The captain swears by his ability to navigate the islands, and despite his immense incompetence, they eventually crash on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia.
There, the narrator observes these humans who, as luck would have it, are also safe from a disease ravaging the rest of the world, rendering the entire human race infertile. As they grow older they establish a life for themselves on the island, and without even knowing it, serve as the starting point for a new and improved (in some sense, at least) human race, one the narrator witnesses himself as his one million-year-sojourn comes to an end.
There are all these people bragging about how they’re survivors, as though that’s something very special. But the only kind of person who can’t say that is a corpse.― Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos
The Big Brain Problem in Galapagos
If you’re at all familiar with Vonnegut, then you’ll likely agree that the man had an uncanny talent for peering beneath the veil of life, to see what truly lay at the core of the decisions made by human beings. He had an unrivalled instinct to recognize all the truly ridiculous and absurd aspects of our existence, and in Galapagos, in my opinion at least, he surpasses himself in finding the true root of all human problems: the big brain.
While it is quite hilarious to hear him time and time again proclaiming how this or that character made such and such terrible decision because their big brain decided to betray and fool them, it is also difficult to argue against this point of view. He opens our eyes to the fact our brains work against us surprisingly often, and while they do give us the ability to look where none other can see and yearn for things only we can imagine, they’re also the source of much of our misery, personal and collective.
Though most authors start to sound a little tedious and pompous when they keep repeating themselves, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the few who can actually get away with it for two main reasons. One, the various phrases he repeats again and again in this book serve to drive a point home about human nature. Two, they are both true and blessed with good comedic timing.
Our small cast of main characters, for the most, all serve as examples of the various ways in which a person can be betrayed by their brain. For instance, the Captain fools himself into thinking he actually knows what he is doing, and makes him believe he has to regain face after being drunk. In other words, the regular and recognizable human decisions they make are often deconstructed down their core, with Vonnegut showing how, in fact, they are all signs of an oversized brain working against its owner. As a matter of fact, most of our beliefs only come from imaginary agreements, rather than laws of Nature.
Naturally, even though the humans in the story eventually evolve to have smaller brains a million years later, I don’t think Vonnegut truly advocates for such a future, despite it overtly solving many of our modern-day problems. Rather, it has made me more aware of just how brilliantly flawed and comically-arranged the human brain can be, and how I’m as much of a victim as any other person on the planet.
So long, old pal. You’re going to a different world now. It’s sure to be a better one, since no other world could be as bad as this one is.― Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos
The Darkness Beneath the Sunny Cruise
While comedy is without a doubt Kurt Vonnegut‘s forte, it is very much unique with a style of its own, one largely based on the observation of absurd human behaviour. As such, the author has used it on multiple occasions to shed light in more socially-acceptable fashion on the sorts of topics and issues we would very much prefer not to think about.
In Galapagos, there are numerous scenes where Vonnegut describes with factual detachment acts of cruelty and violence committed by people driven to madness through desperation. As a matter of fact, I would say that compared to most of Vonnegut‘s other works, this novel dives deeper and much more often into the darker side of human nature.
Naturally, as you might have gathered, the violence is never gratuitous, always serving the purpose of illustrating some idea relating to the human condition. More often than not, in my opinion, I had the impression that Vonnegut wanted to show how we’re still primarily driven by evolutionary instincts, that we are willing to resort to any means necessary when faced with the real possibility of our genetics becoming extinguished.
Thankfully, our varied protagonists, more often than not, soften the blow of whatever despicable acts or atrocities we’re made to witness. They often behave like caricatures of themselves, and the fact we’re not made too aware of their innermost thoughts and emotions gives us a healthy sort of detachment from them, one which allows us to appreciate their predicament, without feeling too involved in their rather ridiculous fates.
With this being said, each and every person in this novel is easy to imagine and rings true in some fashion. That is to say, it is quite easy to imagine such people existing in the real world, more or less exactly how they’re portrayed. All of their decisions feel realistic given the context, giving a tangible weight and meaning to all the darkness within the author seeks to explore… the darkness stemming from the oversized human brain.
|336||Dial Press||Jan. 12 1999||978-0385333870|
The Final Verdict
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut is a rather unusual humour novel, following a structure of its own, steeped in the sharp, perceptive and piercing style the author was renowned for. Rather than offering twists and turns, it offers highly thought-provoking and side-splitting revelations about the lot of modern human beings, and the treacherous organ fueling our existence.
If you’re a Vonnegut fan, or are looking for a humorous yet profoundly-meaningful novel which steers way off the beaten track, then I strongly recommend you give Galapagos the attention it deserves.
(November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007)
Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer, a great pioneer and titan of literature who managed to profoundly move people from all corners of the world. His satirical humor is something sacred uniqueness in the world of literature.