Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review of Treason's Harbour

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian, 1983. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Obscurity battles accessibility in this series. On the one hand the plots are captivating in a fully traditional way, the protagonists are good people you want to root for and the jokes are very, very funny. On the other hand the books are full of obscure references and terminology, some of which cannot be clarified even by the OED. Nine volumes into the series I'm still regularly looking things up. A reference work called A Sea of Words by Dean King has been helpful, but it's nowhere near complete. And yes, a lot of the action and humor will be lost on those who refuse to make an effort.

One of the things you can get in return is an intuitive understanding of how the most successful organization of the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Royal Navy, really worked. Through that, one can glimpse insights into efficiency in general. You also get a feel for the mechanics of sailing and artillery, and for the relative roles of intelligence, fussiness, bravery, drudgery and brute force in military success in those times.

19th century intelligence gathering is also fully on display here. It seems that the spying outfits of the Napoleonic era were as likely as the modern ones to employ double agents. Why maintain a spying agency if it's almost guaranteed to contain enemy spies, if almost all of the information it possesses quickly gets turned over to the enemy? Well, if you don't have a spying agency, you end up having no intelligence on your rivals, but these rivals will still plant spies into your non-intelligence-gathering governmental structures, as actually happens in this book.

Some readers may wonder how a man as nerdy as Stephen Maturin can be any good as a liar and a manipulator, i.e. a spy. The answer is simple: he does it consciously. Women and non-nerdy men lie and manipulate intuitively. If nerds are to do it, we have to consciously think through every step, which is what Stephen is in fact shown doing here. Of course Stephen spies for purely altruistic reasons. If he wasn't highly altruistic, he wouldn't have had anything in common with Jack at all, and their close friendship would have been utterly implausible.

Early in this volume there is an enlightening scene of Jack wooing a lady.

"Since Jack Aubrey had never deliberately and with malice aforethought seduced a woman in his life, his was not a regular siege of her heart, with formal lines of approach, saps and covered ways; his only strategy (if anything so wholly instinctive and unpremeditated deserved such a name) was to smile very much, to be as agreeable as he could, and to move his chair closer and closer."

How can he be popular with women without acting like a jerk? Extreme natural masculinity, plus his high status among men, which was mostly earned by his and his ancestors' honest, but extreme masculinity. In short, he's so macho that he doesn't even have to be bad to them.

But enough on personalities. I should really say something about O'Brian's style and what reading these novels generally feels like.

All the discouraging aspects of life are frequently acknowledged here - pain, waste, dishonesty, stupidity, the inevitability of decline and death, the possible meaninglessness of it all. Yet the tone isn't cranky or misanthropic. You never get the sense that the author felt cheated by life or wanted to get back at fate or humanity for anything. This contributes to the otherworldly feeling that the books are narrated by an entity that exists somewhere above man's passions and limitations.

And yet there is a great deal of humor here. Real life is rarely funny. Most people's attempts at humor end up in cartoonishness, i.e. a radical simplification of typical situations' facts, settings, personalities and motivations. It's notoriously difficult to come up with stories that are both humorous and realistic. O'Brian did something even harder than that - the reality in which all of his jokes work is just as complex as ours, yet completely unlike anything he could have experienced directly. It's an amazing achievement.

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