Saturday, February 18, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 6: The Fortune of War

The Fortune of War:  Aubrey and Maturin in America.  We are NOT the good guys.  (SPOILER ALERT now.)  Back in Desolation Island, the Cheseapake-Leopard Affair of 1807 had already created tension between the U.S. and Britain and created trouble for Aubrey and crew even as far away as the southern oceans.  Not long into The Fortune of War, the War of 1812 begins.  As usual, O'Brian puts our fictional heroes into real historical situations, starting with the defeat of the Java by the United States' most famous tall ship, USS Constitution.  For most the book, Aubrey and Maturin are prisoners of war in Boston.  At the same time, the U.S. Navy is shaming the supposedly invincible British with a string of victories at sea.  It is not just the poor "fortune" of the protagonists, however, that puts the U.S. in a bad light.  O'Brian creates an unflattering portrait of our early national character.  Americans are slavers.  There is a fabulous moment when a Huron tells the Irish Maturin, "We are, after all, both defeated."  Northerners are money grubbers, Southerners are crude, and everyone is spitting tobacco.  Most importantly, Americans are power-hungry, ready to stab you in the back...most ungentlemanly.

There is, in fact, a lot of sneaking and stabbing.  The sixth book is more of a spy novel than a military novel.  Although it begins and ends with grand ship battles, most of the plot unfolds in the streets and halls of Boston.  Both Aubrey and Maturin are cornered, the former trapped in, all of all places, an asylum, and the later on the run from French agents and a villainous American who is also the man who stole way Maturin's beloved Diana Villiers.  O'Brian does a pretty respectable job walking the path of Fleming and Ludlum.  If this was a Bond, it would be On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which the spy does not have the upper hand, and the love is potentially fatal.  Which also happens to be my favorite Bond.

After half a a dozen Aubrey-Maturin books, I am really impressed on how O'Brian can stay true to genre but create whole new settings for each book.  The Fortune of War is a direct continuation of the story arc started in Desolation Island.  It is also follows the unfolding of history.  Best of all, it deepens the characters of the Captain and the Doctor.  Bravo...again.

17th century map of the Spice Islands

(1) HMS Leopard, after its near destruction in the south Indian Ocean, limps into Pulo Batang in the Malay Archipelago.   Capt. Jack Aubrey recounts the adventure to Drury, the Port Admiral.  Horrible old Leopard is doomed to transport duty.  Aubrey and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin are given orders to sail home aboard the La Fléche, due from Bombay.  Aubrey stands up for his officers and midshipmen, insisting they be sent back to Britain as well.  Maturin meets with Wallis, the Admiral's political advisor, and learns that his friend Sir Joseph is, thankfully, back in charge of British intelligence.  Furthermore, the poisoned dispatches Maturin had planted with the American spy, Louisa Wogan, have in fact reached their destinations and made tremendous confusion in the French services.  Maturin must make haste back to Catalonia and renew his activities.  Meanwhile, the English disruption of American trade and their abduction of American seamen have driven the two countries to almost inevitable war.  Aubrey learns that once home he is to be given command of the heavy, 40-gun Acasta.  As the Leopards wait for La Fléche, they engage in a game of cricket with the local men.  Maturin's experience in Irish hurling makes for an interesting contest.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Antipode: the real (or relative) far side of the world

An antipode is the place on the globe exactly opposite where you are.  In other words, if you ran a line directly from Point A through the center of the Earth and out the other side to Pt B, A and B are antipodes of each other.

I got curious the other day and wondered, what is the opposite side of the world from Seattle?  I discovered a cool if simple Web site that does just that for you:  By cool coincidence, the major landmass closest to Seattle's antipode is Grande Terre, the main island of the Kerguelens.  For you O'Brian nerds, this is otherwise known as Desolation Island!

I thought it was cool...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Pirates, archaeologists, and smugglers: a tale of three documentaries

Ile Sainte-Marie:  just another pirate paradise

Last week, "H2," previously known as "History International," aired three shows targeted towards the drunken pirate demographic.  The first I stumbled into (on G'Ma's TV), and when I looked on the Comcast guide and set the DVR for a full showing of that I found two more.  The first, accidental discovery was the best as an actual documentary:  Pirate Island, about investigations of Ile Sainte-Marie off northeast Madagascar.  Ile Sainte-Marie was one of the premier pirate havens of the Golden Age, because it had everything you could ask for--a location close to the rich shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean yet undisclosed to the law, a harbor to keep ships same from both storms and the Navy, and a local supply of fruit and water.  Kidd, Levasseur, Every, and other legendary pirates of the era used the island as a base at one time or another.  It was known for having vestiges of pirate days, but no professional archaeological survey had ever been done.
Bell of the Whydah

The team leader for the investigations documented in Pirate Island is a modern name well known to pirate buffs, Barry Clifford.  Clifford reached fame in 1984 with his discovery of the Whydah (pronounced WID-ah, not WIDE-ah).  The Whydah started as a trading and slave ship in 1715, but two years later it was captured in the Caribbean by the pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy.  Bellamy added cannons, made the 105-foot vessel his flagship, and preyed off the East Coast.  Unfortunately, in April, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a storm near Cape Cod.  Gale-force winds snapped the mainmast, and the ship capsized and broke apart.  Over a hundred pirate corpses washed up on the beach the next day as well as scattered goods that were quickly picked over by wreckers.  Three hundred years later, Clifford found the wreck of the Whydah.  Over 200,000 artifacts have now been recovered, ranging from buttons and buckles to grape shot and grenades...and 10,000 coins and 400 jewelry fragments.  The key find was the ship's bell, clearly inscribed with "The Whyday Gally 1716."  Clifford had found the first positively identified pirate shipwreck.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Nautical Noir: Pérez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart

Fred MacMurray in the classic Double Indemnity

Film noir may or may not be a genre, but its conventions are well known.  The pulp fiction storylines.  The stark black and white and those telltale shadows.  The sharp dialogue and plot twists.  I don't think I am alone, however, in thinking that the core of film noir is its worldview.  Whether the protagonists are detectives or common Joes, all suffer from the same malady, the same fate, variations on a philosophical theme.  Noir posits that even the good guys aren't safe, or maybe there are no good guys at all.  Betrayal is unavoidable.  Betrayal is perhaps the meaning of life, the denouement of anyone's storyline.  You won't win.  You won't break even.  You will, sometime, in the end, lose.  And it's probably the fault of a dame.

G'Ma gave me Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart once she was done with it, which was not long after I had finished the previously reviewed Captain Alatriste.  Soon after I started, I figured out that I needed to read this as a noir.  The two main characters are archetypal.  Our antihero, pulled out of his common life into dark schemes, is Coy, a sailor who has essentially been framed for the wreck of a vessel and has thus been separated from ships, his livelihood, his passion, and his escape.  He is desperate.  Enter the femme fatale, Tánger, a maritime historian who is in fact a notorious treasure hunter.  Coy falls for the woman--her sex, her mind, her balance of fragility and confidence, and her romantic view of the sea.  The noir types keep going:  the competition, the hit man.

The third main character, however, is the sea itself.  The titular chart is Hitchcock's MacGuffin.  This leads, supposedly, to the long-lost wreck of a Jesuit ship; why exactly this is important and profitable is one of the initial mysteries of the book.  The ocean means much more than this.  It is described with loving and longing by the author and his main character.  There is modern sailing and imaginings of the age of xebecs and brigantines.  I can't quite find proof online that Pérez-Reverte is a sailor himself.  He certainly knows his lore and terminology.  Moreover, he seems to love the sea, but it is a noir love.  With due reference, Coy is the sailor who fell from grace with the sea.

Sunset over Cartagena, Spain, one of the book's main locations.  Pic by lamangazul.

The Nautical Chart is thus a very special combination of noir and nautical fiction.  It is NOT a quick read.  The author spends a lot of time on description, mood, and the protagonist's feelings and thoughts.  The film in my head alternates between the closeups and tight spaces of noir and sweeping shots of the Spanish coast and the open Mediterranean, with flashbacks both to Coy's past and the voyage of the old Jesuit ship.  Another noir standard, the voiceover, could work for the contemplative Coy.   The plot, honestly, could handle some compression.  There's an Indy-like adventure that could played up more without losing the noir feel.  As for the imaginary score, Pérez-Reverte makes that easy:  The antihero loves jazz, and how noir is that?

Pérez-Reverte seems to have a thing for noir.  It was in Captain Alatriste but cloaked in old Spanish pathos.  The Nautical Chart is sort of a noir for O'Brian fans; being a nautical buff adds a whole new level of enjoyment to the book.  As a noir film, it would be less The Maltese Falcon and more Double Indemnity.  Ah, and the Spanish have, indeed, already made a movie, but unlike Alatriste I don't think we'll ever see an American release.  Coy is played by Carmelo Gómez, who really doesn't look (from the pictures) like I imagined him.  Maybe I'm just fixated on the freckles connection to Tánger, but I can see Julianne Moore as the femme fatale (or maybe it's just because Julianne Moore is awesome).  What is clear to me is that Pérez-Reverte, using elements of film noir but with a weather eye to the sea, is very adept in this book at creating a full picture, filled with characters, scenery, and emotion.  It is a novel worth seeing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A few islands short of Heaven (Logan's weekend)

Friday.  I am reasonably flush when, after a week's administrative delay, the IRS has given me my annual refund.  At work, as Super Bowl weekend approached, we have had a "tailgate" potluck, each cubicle serving snack food, crock pot BBQ meatballs, homemade chili, and so on.  The sports-minded are wearing jerseys; I declare my Hawaiian shirt as "the official jersey of the competitive cocktail drinker."  When I get off, I drive north to pay rent and come home along the shore of Lake Washington.  There has been no wind all day, but now there are little whitecaps yet no boats taking advantage.  The seed of an urge begins to sprout.

The Dog & Pony:  land of wonder

I'm fidgety, in no mood to give in to the television.  So I head to our local, the Dog and Pony.  Alone and intending to stay that way, I take over one of the big, comfy black leather chairs in the corner.  I have the last pint of my precious Old Rasputin before the keg's out and move on to Silver City Scotch Ale.  The noise of conversation mingles with music streaming from Pandora, every fifth song seeming to be Led Zeppelin (no complaints).  I tune it all out and head to the waters off Cartagena, Spain, where the crew of the Carpanta in Pérez-Reverte's The Nautical Chart is finally on the water searching for the lost wreck of a Jesuit ship.  My barmaid, Erin, notices my contented grin when she brings my nachos (hold the jalapeños).  I tell her that this is almost Heaven--oversized chair, beer, nautical fiction, and no worries.  If only the ocean was just out of the window.  Once the third pint is drained I head home, pour the Sailor Jerry, and watch a movie that is less a musical than a philosophical treatise:  Paint Your Wagon.  To pick one random quote from the epitome of rugged nonconformity, Ben Rumson, "God made the mountains/God made the sky/God made the people/God knows why..."