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Chita: A Memory Of Last Island
by Lafcadio Hearn
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From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Cataclysmic hurricanes and flooding in Louisiana, with tragic consequences: Unfortunately, we've been there before. Back in 1889 the Anglo-Greek author Lafcadio Hearn wrote a novel called Chita: A Memory of Last Island (Univ. of Miss., $22). It dealt with the very real hurricane two decades earlier that had nearly swept the barrier island L'Ile Dernière from the map. Recently republished by the University of Mississippi Press, Chita is more than an eerily topical good read. It is an evocative parable of people living the good life on the edge of the abyss, of hubris in the face of savage nature and of the innocents who bear the brunt of the suffering that results from it.
Hearn was a gnomic figure now best known for his evocative writings on Japan, which did much to define how we look at that country even today. Earlier, as a journalist in the Crescent City, he virtually invented the notion of New Orleans as "the city that care forgot," a place where hedonistic pleasures mix with strange, sinister forces and a culture fated to perish, whether by the forces of modernity or, failing that, of nature. The 1856 hurricane, which he learned of through the writings of survivors, gave Hearn the perfect vehicle to elaborate these premonitions.
The story begins at a guest house on the sunny, windswept L'Ile Dernière, or "Last Isle," to which a group of affluent New Orleanians have fled to escape the heat of the city. Their idyll is broken by a storm that quickly swells into a hurricane that swept the entire summer colony into the Gulf. The sole survivor, Chita, is the daughter of a proud New Orleans Creole businessman. She is washed ashore on another island, rescued by Spanish fishermen and eventually raised by them. Her father, now a widower, eventually abandons hope of finding his children. The novel turns on the circumstances of his eventual reunion with his daughter and its tragic consequences.
Hearn believed the world of Chita's father was doomed. Many today -- I'm not one of them -- believe that New Orleans itself is doomed, whether because of its attempt to defy nature or its hedonism. Only time will tell. In the meantime, prophets of gloom have in their corner this minor masterpiece of American literature.
(The reviewer is a scholar of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.)
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