Tips from a Life Less Ordinary

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Someone had to put the pieces together," Thor Heyerdahl remarks at one point in his recollections of an extraordinary life. Explorer, anthropologist, zoologist, biologist, archaeologist and navigator, Heyerdahl has spent an unsettled, uncompromising existence constantly tilting at long-cherished orthodoxies and searching for solutions to unanswered questions.

The unknown Norwegian catapulted into history and captured the world's imagination in 1947 when he and five companions spent 101 days sailing from Peru to Polynesia on a small balsa raft called Kon-Tiki. Today it's a measure of Heyerdahl's epic achievement that his belief that these isolated islands in the Pacific could have been settled by people from South America rather than Asia--like his theory that balsa and papyrus-reed rafts could sail for months on the world's great oceans--is well-known, if not widely accepted.

Still, In the Footsteps of Adam (Little, Brown; 303 pages) is less a conventional autobiography than a prolonged self-justification. In particular, it's an attempt--not entirely successful--to share the accumulated wisdom, aphorisms and perspective gained over eight decades spent exploring on six continents and three oceans.

The literary device Heyerdahl uses to tell his tale is unusual and disarming. He uses an aku-aku, which to Easter Islanders is an invisible alter ego who poses questions and offers advice whenever necessary. Involved discussions with Heyerdahl's aku-aku crop up throughout this book and allow the author to fillet his life, anticipate criticism and discourse at length (sometimes a bit self-indulgently) on anything he wishes--be it religion, sport, nature or the future.

Heyerdahl comes across as self-righteous and opinionated, yet he is not easily categorized. He calls his experiences as a commando in World War II "meaningless," but they taught him that fighting was futile and led to a lifelong commitment to peace. Despite a conventional scientific education, he came to loathe specialization in learning. A believer in what American Indians know as the Great Spirit, he has never been at ease with any of the world's organized religions. No political party has corralled him, and while Kon-Tiki made his name (his account of the voyage has been translated into 67 languages) he now regrets the way the expedition forced him to defend his integrity.

Yet a clear and hugely ambitious intellectual thread does run through this life: Heyerdahl's enduring desire to revise mankind's understanding of itself and its relationship with nature. "The more we remove ourselves from nature, the more complicated our existence becomes," he argues. He has, he writes, "an instinctive belief in nature as the progenitor and master of human beings."

This faith in the pure and pristine essence of mankind produces blind spots--one of which concerns politics, ideology and history. He maintains that "most Russians and Germans were against both communism and Nazism," adding later that he has "never met an Italian who had fought for fascism" and topping this off with the dubious assertion: "People who are not hungry never revolt." About the more distant past Heyerdahl is on surer ground. "The most important thing we can learn from the past is that no earlier civilization has survived. And the larger the pyramids and temples and statues they build in honor of their god or themselves, the harder was the fall."

This is Heyerdahl's 11th book and at some points--such as a lengthy account of how he triumphed in the 1950s over academics who doubted his Kon-Tiki achievement--readers may wonder if he was running out of material. At other points, his reticence to peer deeply into his own soul irritates, not least when it comes to his discussion of his two failed marriages.

That said, it is hard to gainsay Heyerdahl's heroic accomplishments. He began his expeditions by spending a year with the first of his three wives living next to a retired cannibal on the remote Marquesas Islands in 1937-38. In his 60s he undertook a five-month journey from the swamps of Iraq to the Red Sea on a berdi reed boat named Tigris. Today, at the age of 85, he is still hard at work resurrecting long-forgotten pyramids in Peru and in the Canary Islands, where he lives, certain that his unusual life has not been in vain. "Even today," he says, "it would still be felt that Columbus or the Vikings had discovered America if I hadn't shown that Polynesian canoeists reached British Columbia."

In this era of global travel and global communication it is very easy to believe there is nothing left to explore on this planet. After a lifetime devoted to an iconoclastic pursuit of truth, Heyerdahl has an answer to this. "Those who have found paradise," he writes, "have found it within themselves." If that is so, the endlessly questing, courageous Heyerdahl (and his aku-aku) must have a fine chance of discovering nirvana--even if this is ultimately a disappointing book.