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Going Home to the Galapagos : MY FATHER'S ISLAND A Galapagos Quest by Johanna Angermeyer (Viking: $19.95; 303 pp.)

January 28, 1990|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch is a frequent contributor to The Times' View Section. and

It is one of the most vivid memories of my early childhood: I awoke from a fever dream, and I was seized with an awful realization: "I do not belong here!"

The stucco house in Culver City was not my home; the man and woman sleeping in the next room were not my parents; I was out of place, out of time, a foundling who suddenly discovers that he was somehow mislaid by princes or pirates. And then, of course, the fever passed, and I was myself again.

Johanna Angermeyer also was growing up in a bland Southern California suburb at about the same time. Her childhood was awash in the same acute sense of displacement, but it was not the result of a fever dream. And in "My Father's Island," Angermeyer tells us how she came to discover the tantalizing secrets of an impossibly romantic family history, and how those secrets sent her on a marvelous odyssey to the wilds of the Galapagos Islands.

Young Johanna discovers that her dead father--a figure of profound mystery until the very end of the book--was one of four brothers who left Germany in the mid-1930s and set sail for the Galapagos Islands to escape the catastrophe that was fast approaching in Europe. And she discovers, too, that her half-brother is the unsuspected scion of an old family of the South American landed gentry; it is his inheritance that allows the little family to escape the spiritual poverty of their suburban life and make their way to Quito and then to Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.

For Johanna, the journey to the Galapagos, made in early adolescence, is quite literally a "dream come true, a child's dream, a lover's dream, the dream of whoever it was I would become in this land." Then, too, it is a rite of passage, a coming of age for a young woman on the ragged edge of adolescence. But the reality of life on a desert island turns out to be as vivid, as intense, as colorful and as revelatory as any dream:

"And you, my girl, will be changed . . . once you step ashore," says her long-lost Uncle Gus--who calls himself "king of the enchanted islands"--when Johanna reaches the Galapagos at last. "It may be paradise waiting for you over there--or it could be hell? Are you afraid?"

Angermeyer does not spare us the less idyllic details of life on a remote desert island, and her narrative is full of the fascinating details that make a travel book so appealing to those of us who stayed behind in Southern California: the constant battle against fire ants, centipedes and spiders; the perils of self-diagnosis and self-treatment on an island 600 miles from the nearest doctor; the daily foraging for food and drink.

"I'd given up reading 'Swiss Family Robinson' ," she writes. "Mr. (author J. R.) Wyss had clearly never stepped on a real desert island; he made it all too easy. On a real island, eating was a full-time occupation." Of course, sometimes even the hardships of island life seem charming--the privy is a cleft in a towering sea cliff, and the toilet paper is dispensed from a goat's horn.

But Angermeyer's story is also enlivened with a sense of mystery, romance and adventure that one expects to find only in a fairy tale: shipwrecks and escapes, wild stallions and charging boars, gamboling porpoises and friendly iguanas, fearsome sharks and treacherous scorpions, a half-mad hermit on a desert island and a forbidding duenna in a great house, a Danish ballerina and a German baroness, a fallen air hero and a rogue sailor, all of it building to the immense revelation of her father's mysterious and tragic death. And I dare not reveal how all of these intriguing details fit together for fear of giving away Angermeyer's secret before she does.

I sense that Angermeyer has long prepared herself to tell the stories that we find in "My Father's Island." Indeed, each image and each anecdote has the feel of a cherished keepsake that has been polished by constant handling. This may explain why Angermeyer sometimes tends to overwrite: "Pichincha scrutinized us like a craggy-faced judge wearing a white-powdered wig of snow and a thick cloak of eucalyptus forest up to his chin," she writes of her first sight of the mountains of Quito.

But, then, every word in Angermeyer's book has the ring of truth. And once we begin to understand how young Johanna must have experienced these strange revelations--as the unfolding of a poignant mystery--we begin to appreciate how deeply she has reached into her own private history in order to tell her tale.

And the fact is that she tells it brilliantly. For example, Angermeyer gives us the exquisitely romantic tale of how her mother and father fell in love after a chance meeting in the streets of Quito--a fateful and doomed love--and Angermeyer shares the moment when she revisits the scene of their courtship:

"A cool passageway led to a sunny courtyard. In the centre a fountain gulped tiredly, its basin cracked and mended, green slime collecting where it leaked. Doves cooed up on the roof tiles and underfoot the floor of the patio was inlaid with oxen vertebrae set in intricate patterns of circles surrounded by round river pebbles. The roof sagged. The walls were covered in a hundred coats of whitewash. . . . For once in my life, something was just as I had imagined it would be. It was a fitting place for one's parents to fall in love."

I came to "My Father's Island" after finishing a couple of Bruce Chatwin's metaphysical travelogues--"In Patagonia" and "The Songlines"--and so I was already in the mood for another story of adventure in exotic places. What I found in Johanna Angermeyer's book was something quite different but no less accomplished or compelling.

I was thoroughly prepared to like "My Father's Island," but I did not expect to fall in love with it.

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