Monday, March 26, 2012

Review of Desolation Island

"Desolation Island", 1978, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.2 out of 10.

I enjoyed this volume greatly, but since I've already written about O'Brian's virtues as a writer in earlier reviews, I'll skip directly to the minor problems:

The Wogan-Herapath relationship excessively resembled the Stephen-Diana pairing. You could say that the odds of two such similar couples coming across each other aren't any slimmer than the odds of Jack cheating death at sea so many times in a row, but at least O'Brian's battles are insanely captivating. Since he was just as unwilling to make fun of Wogan as he was of Diana, the passages that featured her were a reliable drag. Worse, he was less willing to make fun of Herapath than of Stephen. Herapath's lengthy recounting of his history with Wogan seemed to belong to the early 19th century not just in grammar and vocabulary (as everything in this series does) but in storytelling style too, and I don't mean the latter as a compliment. Yes, it would have been inauthentic to have him tell his story in a much more interesting way himself, but this information could have been imparted to the reader by other means, or at least in smaller bursts.

I did not really understand why this book had to be called Desolation Island. The landmass so named is first mentioned only on p. 296 of 350. It's not central to the story. The scenes by which I'll remember this work decades from now are actually the ones that describe the Leopard's flight from and then battle with the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid. From p. 296 till p. 303 there is supposed to be an uncertainty about whether Jack's ship will reach Desolation Island at all. But the title kills the suspense - since the book is called Desolation Island, of course the Leopard is going to make it to Desolation Island.

I'm curious about the dos and don'ts of nobility, about the exact limits of honorable behavior. At one point in this book Stephen, working in his capacity as a British spy, asks Jack for permission to open a letter written by an American spy on board. Jack has to hide his displeasure:

"Captain Aubrey would do his utmost to deceive an enemy by the use of false colors and false signals, by making him believe that the ship was a harmless merchantman, a neutral, or a compatriot, and by any other ruse that might occur to his fertile mind. All was fair in war: all except for opening letters and listening behind doors. If Stephen, on the other hand, could bring Buonaparte one inch nearer to the brink of Hell by opening letters, he would happily violate a whole mail-coach full. 'You will read captured dispatches with open glee and exultation,' he said, 'for you concede that they are public papers. If you value candor, you must admit that any document bearing on the war is also a public paper: you are to rid your mind of these weak prejudices."

Jack's seems like the default attitude of a gentleman. Stephen's ideas are tainted by leftist ideology. Also, Stephen isn't as masculine as the average man (his attitude to Diana proves this), and far less masculine than Jack. Honor is an inherently male concept.

What's the substantive difference between Stephen's and Jack's attitudes? It's true that sea captains always expected their enemies to play games with national colors, but shouldn't a spy always expect other nations' spies to try to get at his correspondence? There must be something else at work here.

Right before battle a captain always hoisted his true colors. When a letter-opener attacks, the other side isn't even present. Shying away from direct confrontation is both feminine and dishonorable. An open challenge is masculine. Another captain could have only read Jack's official letters after beating him in battle, after putting his own life on the line in a fight.

Interestingly, the American spy here is a woman. Jack disapproves of reading her letters even though he must know that she would have read his without a second thought. Women aren't expected to be constrained by honor, but a gentleman is still bound by it while dealing with them. To me an absence of reciprocity is a deal-breaker, but that simply shows you that I'm not a gentleman.

Jack has no illusions about women in general or the American spy (Mrs. Wogan) in particular:

"Oh, the odious wench. How I wish I were rid of her. I have always loathed women, from clew to earring; hook, line, and sinker; root and branch." ... "Damn her for a flibbertigibbet, the hussy."

And yet he won't have anything to do with lieutenant Howard, a talented flautist, because of Howard's negative remarks about Mrs. Wogan:

"I could take no pleasure in playing with a man who could speak so ill of women."

What could Howard have possibly said about Mrs. Wogan that would have sounded much worse to Jack than "a hussy?" O'Brian doesn't tell us this directly, but I think it's quite likely that when Jack confronted Howard about his illegal attempts to arrange a tryst with Wogan, Howard defended himself by saying that she came on to him herself.

"Contemptible, sir, contemptible! The most disgraceful mean shuffling ungentlemanly defence I have ever heard in my life. The most infernal sneaking scrub ever whelped in a gutter would be ashamed..."

In Jack's eyes respect for women isn't shown by praising their gender or any of its representatives for virtues that they do not possess (compare this with modernity), but in manning up, taking the blame, taking the burden of an unpleasant situation away from a woman even if she is actually to blame. It seems that Howard, truthfully or not (neither Jack nor the reader knows this), blamed the woman instead. One of the gender differences acknowledged by pre-feminist societies is that men are more expendable than women, and that they should therefore take the fall, the blame, the brunt, the burden, etc. every single time they see those.

When Jack desperately needs to borrow a forge from an American ship in order to save his men, he tells the following to Herapath:

"...as a gentleman you will understand that I am extremely reluctant to ask a favour of the American skipper, extremely reluctant to expose the service and myself to a rebuff. I may add that he is equally reluctant to come a-begging me, and I honor him for it. However, on reflection he may feel inclined to exchange the use of his forge for our medical services. You may give him a view of the situation, but without committing us to any specific request. - harkee, Mr. Herapath, don't you expose us to an affront, whatever you do."

I'm very reluctant to ask people for favors too, but this is entirely due to aspiness, not through any gentlemanly notions. Stephen calls Jack's unwillingness to beg foolish, which is pretty discreditable in him, though not as discreditable as the giant chip he carries on his shoulder with regards to the English. At one point he complains about their "disinclination for intellectual pursuits." Really, Stephen? Of all the things you could have picked... He happens to be half-Irish and half-Catalan himself. There's nothing English or Irish in me whatsoever, so perhaps I can be somewhat objective about this. Far be it from me to condemn anyone for sticking up for their own, but yes, that can become pathetic when combined with jaw-dropping delusions and extreme hypocrisy (Stephen fancies himself a universalist liberal). Every single time he is shown thinking about the English as a group, it's in negative terms. He even maligns their famous sense of humor, their tendency to not take either themselves or their problems seriously.

The occasional glimpses of the abyss that separates modern sensibilities from those of the Napoleonic era always add to the fun of reading these books. This is what the captain of the foretop tells Harepath after he volunteers to climb up: "You want to take care of your hands, though: the premier don't like blood on the standing rigging."

When a nearly-fatal leak in the Leopard's hull finally gets partially plugged, the crew's spirits surge: "...from having to encourage, threaten, beat or even cajole the exhausted hands, the officers had to restrain their zeal, for fear that the pump-chains would break or choke yet again..."

I just love the place occupied by cajoling in the list of tools available to management. And finally, here is Jack talking about his midshipmen in a letter to Sophie:

"There are ten of them altogether..." "...and I am responsible to their parents: it makes me feel like an anxious hen. Not that some of them are in much danger, except of a beating. The boy I rated captain's servant for Harding's sake, is an odious little villain - I have already had to stop his grog - and there are a couple more among the oldsters, nephews of men who were kind to me, that are more like vermin than anything I like to see on my quarterdeck."

Grog's active ingredient was rum. In general, honesty and cheerfullness often have to push in opposite directions. Their collision in Jack's letters and conversation sometimes results in a particularly touching sort of humor.