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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel / autobiographical

Phi Phi Island

Josef Haslinger

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To purchase Phi Phi Island

Title: Phi Phi Island
Author: Josef Haslinger
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 204 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Phi Phi Island - Deutschland
  • Ein Bericht
  • Phi Phi Island has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid surviving-the-tsunami account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 21/3/2007 Eberhard Rathgeb
Die Welt A 18/3/2007 Jana Hensel
Die Zeit A 31/5/2007 Ulrich Greiner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hoffentlich findet Haslingers Bericht viele Leser." - Eberhard Rathgeb, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Haslinger hingegen reiht sich mit seinem literarischen Tatsachenbericht an die Seite großer amerikanischer Schriftsteller-Reporter. Auf beeindruckende Weise zeigt er, dass die Realität die menschliche Existenz oft brutaler und damit genauer vermisst, als viele Romanwelten es könnten." - Jana Hensel, Die Welt

  • "Es handelt sich hier um eine ästhetische Entscheidung, von der man einiges über das Spannungsverhältnis von Fiktion und Wirklichkeit und Wahrheit lernen kann. Auch das spricht für die Qualität dieses außerordentlichen Textes: dass er das literarische Problem implizit diskutiert und am Ende löst. (...) Josef Haslinger hat nicht bloß einen Bericht geschrieben, sondern ein literarisches Werk von Rang." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Austrian author Josef Haslinger went to Thailand with his wife and twin children for Christmas in 2004, where they got caught up in (and survived) the tsunami. Phi Phi Island is Haslinger's account of what happened, a deliberately sober, neutral look that is descriptive rather than particularly analytic, the psychological toll always apparent but not something he dwells on.
       The account comes from something of a distance; he describes the difficulties he has writing anything afterwards, and his reluctance (and inability) to tackle this particular subject-matter head-on for an extended period, before he finally does it. Haslinger and his wife also travelled back to Thailand a year after the catastrophe, a trip he also incorporates into the book, a necessary point (time and place) of reference.
       Haslinger's account is not chronological. He eventually does present the whole arc of the experience, from the decision to go to Thailand (rather than Jamaica) to the disaster to their return to Austria (as well as the return visit a year later), but he frequently intersperses present- (or later-) day events before returning to what happened in those hours and days; the general feeling of the account, especially until he gets to the experience of the water rushing in, is one of reluctance to confront it. But there's little need for strict chronology: at least in its outlines -- the killer wave, all the Haslingers survive -- there are few surprises here.
       Very early on Haslinger sums up his report in, as he notes, a single sentence. The extent of the destruction -- the resort they were staying at, on the island Koh Phi Phi, was completely destroyed (including all one hundred and ten bungalows) save the swimming pool, one office building, and the roof of the dining area -- is enough to convey the enormity of what happened. But, of course, the fascination is also in the details, including how they survived (and how others didn't), and in his careful, neutral account Haslinger tells a fairly riveting story.
       As far as disasters and catastrophes go, a tsunami is a peculiar one, the rush of water not as immediately or obviously threatening as fire or bombings or an earthquake; here it wasn't even some slow- (or fast)-rising flood, just a wave, and then another. Particularly striking is the arbitrariness of survival, the enormous luck involved in not getting hit by or washed under a piece of debris, of being able to grab hold somewhere, or finding ground that's just high enough. Among the many fascinating details and memorable images: the mad dash out to sea by the boats, for whom the logical course of action was to sail straight into the waves.
       Haslinger goes on to deal at length with the aftermath, also comparing much with how things look a year later. Eventually he does also get to the lingering psychological toll, with the two children, then in their last year of high school, seeming to have the greatest trouble putting the events behind them. Haslinger himself suffered a serious hand-injury -- some tendons in his wrist were severed -- and required extensive medical treatment afterwards; the book is also written entirely in small caps (something much more pronounced in a German text than it would be in an English one, as all nouns are capitalised in German), in part a reaction to the difficulty of using the 'shift'-key with his still disabled fingers (a literary device that would have been more effective if it hadn't become quite so common among German writers ...).
       Phi Phi Island is a strong piece of writing, in part because of Haslinger's restraint. Yet, like all such personal reports, it suffers from being manipulative: Haslinger carefully doses the information, revealing what he wants to reveal piece by piece (rather than presenting it truly neutrally, in what would be perceived as a logical order). Haslinger works very hard to avoid it appearing to be a (too-)personal account: his tone constantly means to impress upon the reader that it is objective and documentary -- but, in fact, it is highly personal. But by not allowing it to be truly personal either it comes across as uncertain of what it wants to be.
       Still, a good read and fairly impressive work.

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Phi Phi Island: Reviews: Phi Phi Princess resort: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Travel-related books
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Austrian writer Josef Haslinger was born in 1955.

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