To those of us brought up on the heroics of the Kon-Tiki and Ra expeditions, Thor Heyerdahl had the mystique of a Norse god. Long before every two-bit adventurer, with one eye on a television film and the other on a book contract, headed for ever remoter areas of the globe, Heyerdahl captivated us with his daring blend of science and history in action. In Kon-Tiki, a craft made out of balsa, he sailed across the Pacific to Polynesia to prove that there could have been early contact between the two civilisations. Similarly, 22 years later, in 1969, he sailed the Atlantic in a papyrus boat to show that the Ancient Egyptians could have made it to America.
It is, therefore, somewhat disconcerting to find Heyerdahl alternately musing whimsically about God, the Universe and everything like some latter-day Laurens Van Der Post and heavy-handedly underlining his green credentials with references to how he was worried about the ozone level at the year dot. Get on with the story, you scream to yourself. Fortunately, once you are about 40 pages in, the gravitas is gradually dropped but the narrative only really kicks into life with Heyerdahl's descriptions of active service in Britain and Scandinavia during the Second World War. As might be expected, the highlights are the two major expeditions, though Heyerdahl seems more interested in having a go at the detractors who have rubbished his findings, than reliving the journeys themselves.
Heyerdahl is now in his 80s and you can't help feeling that at such an age memory competes with the desire to rewrite history to create a fitting memorial to one's own life. So the latter pages of the book are taken up with his role on various governmental and UN quangos, while his home life is reduced to rose-tinted caricature. His three marriages slide easily into one another with little sense of recrimination or regret, while the premature death of his daughter is almost entirely airbrushed away. In the Footsteps of Adam is by no means a bad book, and there is much of interest, but while we get to hear a lot about the mission, the man himself is only partly revealed. However, perhaps it's the prerogative of Nordic deities to remain a mystery. --John Crace [via]