Alfred van Cleef

The Lost Island

Amsterdam op 37’50? Zuiderbreedte

The spell of the most outcast island on earth

‘Nowhere was the sea emptier, the waves higher, or the wind stronger. In this wild mass of water, equidistant from Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia and Antarctica, was a minuscule volcanic peak, at least three thousand kilometers from the nearest continent. I was no longer in doubt. I had fallen under the spell of the most outcast, most middle-of-nowhere island on earth: Amsterdam.’

Spiritedly, Alfred van Cleef describes his obsession with visiting this lone-liest spot on earth, smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Only after years of struggle with the branch of French officialdom responsible for the island’s management does his dream come true; he is granted permission to spend several months on Amsterdam, amid French volcanologists, biologists, meteorologists and soldiers. In addition to discovering the island’s desolation and silence, he comes to know the isolated company of thirty-six men, their strange life of loneliness and camaraderie.

Amsterdam was discovered as early as 1522, during Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, and received its name a century later from the Dutch East India Company captain Antonio van Diemen. However, the deserted island has never proved capable of supporting any life but that of the sea elephants, albatrosses and fur seals who mate, have their young and die there. The insights Van Cleef gains into the propagation and survival of the species confront him with his own illusions about life and the finiteness of being.

This makes The Lost Islans not only a book of adventure – full of explorers, castaways and lone wolves in search of solitude – but also an emotional quest for Van Cleef’s own uprooted past, and the challenge presented him by an empty spot amid a much greater emptiness.

Van Cleef convincingly depicts the importance this place has for him, for the conquering of his own fear, his abhorrence of the vacuum. His achievement here is that of filling of an emptiness, of the creation of a story around a thing unspectacular, of the fact that a misplaced island has still served a fine purpose.

NRC Handelsblad

Van Cleef displays a tenacity which, thanks to the total inutility of his venture, takes on a poetic beauty.

Het Parool

The stories of Amsterdam’s past are spectacular and harrowing.

de Volkskrant


Alfred van Cleef

Alfred van Cleef (b. 1954) is a writer and journalist who for many years worked for NRC Handelsblad, including a stint as correspondent during the wars in the Balkans. His previous books include the novel Longing (2002) and The Hidden Order. A journey of exploration along the prime meridian (2010)…

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Het verdwaalde eiland. Amsterdam op 37’50? Zuiderbreedte (1999). Non-fiction, 240 pages.
Copies sold: 7,000

With references


J.M. Meulenhoff

Herengracht 507
NL - 1017 BV Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 553 35 00
Fax: +31 20 625 11 35

[email protected]

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