The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels
The Great Victorian Collection
It is unsettling to open Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga and see not the usual blocks of rectangular prose but bits of verbal stuff scattered about among portentous-looking blank spaces:
The wind relents a little, but thick waves rumble on the reef, and the sea gnaws the hull.
See dat silver light? Make me sad, someway.
Gloomy, mon. What de old people calls de Mouth of de Night. Cause de night hungry, mon.
The sea expires.
Feel like dat reef waitin, someway. Watchin and waitin.
The typographical layout resembles that of a play, with descriptive stage directions, dialogue inset, and occasional audio-visual effects at center page—here the booms, elsewhere pictograms to show time of day, the state of sea or weather, or (an ink splotch) the death of a character. It looks ominously a page from the school of Ezra Pound.
The air of “poetic” self-consciousness isn’t lessened by the speaking voices, whose accents, played against a cultivated, iambically tending narration, may suggest some sort of Caribbean minstrel show. And the story seems similar to other stories about the sea. An ill-assorted crew sails, too late in the season, from Grand Cayman to the turtling grounds far to the south off Nicaragua; we have a drunk, a stowaway, a malcontent, an unfledged boy, a strange “Spaniard” named Smith (or Brown), an amiable black Honduran, a quietly competent mate, and above all an obsessed captain determined that the voyage shall succeed despite the skepticism of his shipmates, who would gladly have given it up long before its disastrous conclusion in piracy, shipwreck, and the death in open boats of all hands save one. Readers of Melville and Conrad will know where they are.
Significance” seems to assert itself even in the sailors’ conversations. The motif of their talks is change, the loss of the old pride and competence that used to prevail among seafarers but that has been swept away by a “progress” which some accept with wry helplessness—“modern time, mon”—but which no one really welcomes. The stanchest enemy of the new is the unregenerate Copm Raib Avers, his head full of images of those old-timers who deserved to be called Captain, determined to conduct himself like their last surviving heir. And the destruction of Avers on the Misteriosa Reefs, supposed to be “Far Tortuga,” the lost spawning ground of turtlers’ legends, may seem suspiciously contrived.
Yet for all such worries, Far Tortuga turns out to be enthralling. Matthiessen uses his method not for self-display but for identifying and locating his characters. The book keeps in close, attentive touch with these sailors’ sense of one another, their interest in what they do and do not know about nature and man, their unpretentious concern, above all, for their work, the activities which quite literally sustain their lives and about which there is always enough to say:
Well, it time to start thinkin where we gone to set our nets.…
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