Torsten Krol's The Dolphin People : A Great Utopian Parable for Our Savage Times

Torsten Krol writes unabashedly in the Daniel Defoe vein, as though we were at the cusp of a new civilization, and fiction were indispensable to understanding what we're getting into; as Defoe's novels had a certain urgency for his time, because of lack of competing media able to take on the verities of the transformation, so does Krol impart his books with a similar energy and relentlessness.

Krol's Callisto was the single best fictional expose of homeland paranoia in America in the age of terrorism. The Dolphin People (Harper Perennial) -- actually his first novel, but issued in America now -- has even larger fish to fry.

The genre pertains to the man of civilization stuck in a primitive society, either by choice (as is true of anthropologists or missionaries or warriors) or against their choice (such as Robinson Crusoe finding himself stranded on a Pacific island); it is a favorite tool of writers with broad enlightenment leanings, because it allows them to posit utopia's contours against an empty backdrop -- or what we civilized people see as empty.

What is the primitive? Is our civilization just a facade for the primitive, or do we have something to be proud of? The answer, in the latter part of the twentieth century, as in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, was a resounding "no": our rituals may appear different in shape and form, but underneath it we are all beasts waiting to come out of our shells to inhabit the raw exterior so easily assumed by each of us, given the right conditions.

Shortly after World War II, sixteen-year-old Erich Linden flies to Venezuela along with his mother and his twelve-year-old brother Zeppi, to be with his Uncle Klaus, who is going to marry his mother. Erich's father has been killed in the war. Klaus, a self-styled doctor, does quickly marry Erich's mother, but the plane they are taking to Klaus's job in the interior of the Amazon jungle crashes, and the family finds itself stranded among the Yayomi.

This tribe mistakes them for dolphins, according to the prophecy of one Noroni, who had dreamed that they would manifest in human form on the riverbank. Living among the tribe is Gerhard Wentzler, an anthropologist who has lived among them since 1936, and is therefore out of touch with developments in Europe and the world (Gerhard is actually Jewish, as we will later find out).

As Gerhard translates for Erich and his family, it becomes clear that the only way to survive is to pretend that they are dolphins, and to explain their maneuvers by that resort, so that the Yayomi continue to think highly of them; meanwhile the Germans all plot to escape the Yayomi when the once-in-seven-years' strong rain cycle hits, and the smaller river they're on merges with the larger ones to allow them passage to the coast.

Krol raises the stakes for survival to the highest possible pitch -- one false move and they are dead -- and then steps back to allow greater or lesser degrees of adaptability on the part of the Germans.

Gerhard is already completely "assimilated," of course, but he is outdone by Erich, who falls in love with and marries Noroni's sister. The least adaptable is Erich's mother, who reverts to complete paralysis and madness, unable even to deal with her family's adoption of nakedness.

Klaus, too, reverts to madness -- or rather, the madman in him is revealed, in his unreconstructed Nazi hatred of Jews, and in his savage butchery of Zeppi. Klaus leaves Zeppi for dead, when he doesn't just extricate a fish that has entered Zeppi's urethra but cuts up his entire genital area, to turn Zeppi into a girl (Zeppi, because of his female breasts, had earlier been declared a hermaphrodite by Klaus).

Erich's mother is eaten by piranhas in the river, as he watches helplessly, having chosen to bathe herself in a less frequented part of the river, where the current is slow and allows piranhas to hunt for human flesh.

In short, Krol enacts extreme Freudian scenarios, putting father and mother at risk for murder and rape, turning one boy, Zeppi, into a girl, and another, Erich, into a primitive, while the anthropologist is goaded by Klaus for having lost the will to return to civilization.

One expectation that we might bring to such a book is that the savages will turn out to be savages. Yet Klaus's willful butchery is a cut above what mere savages might hope for -- he presents his murder of Zeppi as being in the service of medical science (in the best Nazi tradition!).

Throughout the book, the two cultures are at a standstill; they're forever postponing the moment of reckoning, the Yayomi almost needing to believe the unbelievable.

Erich is clearly Krol's stand-in for civilized man at his best -- even when he leaves a lot to be desired in terms of selflessness -- since he crosses over to the other side, and recognizes the common humanity of Yayomi and Germans, and Germans and Jews. He knows he can't leave with his beloved young Yayomi bride, being an uber-realist, but Erich's realism is perhaps as close as we're likely to get to utopia.

Our superstitions, we learn from Krol's relatively happy ending, are pervasive -- manifesting themselves not only when we embark on periodic cleansing and genocidal missions, but in every aspect of our lives. Without a core set of beliefs, we cannot function (as Erich's mother clearly cannot); yet belief carried to extremes leads to murder and self-murder.

The function of utopia in literature is to clarify our choices with regards to the extent we can escape our primitive selves. Krol's choice of a Nazi family in the immediate aftermath of Nazi defeat is inspired; it allows a certain distance toward the proceedings, even as we cringe with familiarity at more recent goings-on. Erich is most able to thrive on ambiguity; this lets him overcome his Nazi legacy, and emerge into a full-blown member of the human civilization.