Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review of The Far Side of the World

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian, 1984. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10.

As I began reading this installment, I was afraid that it would cover the same ground as the wonderful Peter Weir movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. To my relief, this was not the case. The film was based on the series as a whole rather than on two of its parts, so it doesn't spoil any of this book's plot twists. I would still recommend watching the movie after you've finished all of the novels though. I would have preferred to have formed my own image of Jack, uninfluenced by Russel Crowe's voice or appearance. He could have just as easily been played by Axl Rose.

It seems ludicrous to compare Jack's supervisory experiences with my own, but my mind constantly wonders in that direction regardless. Over the years I've drawn two general lessons about supervising in the real world: make sure that your staff sees you working harder than they do and keep a healthy emotional distance from them.

Jack doesn't have to work more than his subordinates because he faces greater risks. He's the first to board an enemy ship and the last to leave a sinking one. Snipers aim at HIM, and as a gentleman he can't duck.

In the office environment you do have to work harder though, even if the direct effect of this is a drop in the proverbial bucket. The psychological impact is more important. If your staff sees you relaxing while they're slaving away, they won't want to go an extra nanometer for you when that's needed.

Just as importantly, if work is assigned to them by an extremely formal, official presence, something barely animate, they're less likely to question it than if they see it coming from someone they can relate to. Familiarity is the enemy. Be coldly polite, try not to discuss anything personal, avoid stuff that's liable to humanize you in their eyes. Would you follow the orders of someone exactly like you, of someone who has all the faults and weaknesses that you, your friends and family know you to have? Well, that's the point. Be something else.

So Jack doesn't address his officers by their first names and is in no way a part of their social circle. The loneliness of command is a running theme in these books. Stephen is the only exception, partly because as a doctor he's so unimportant aboard. And as a consequence of his familiarity with Jack he's the only officer who ever argues with him, who openly holds grudges against him and defies his will. A ship full of Stephens wouldn't sail far.

I've written here before that Stephen's liberalism sounds too modern to me. Yet it's by no means identical with today's PC attitudes. For example, we're reminded in this volume that he is vehemently pro-life. His religious belief seems sincere, not just a piece of ethnic identification. In the following statement we see him allude to the very essence of gender relations:

"...even the most virtuous woman despises an impotent man; and surely all self-deprecation runs along the same unhappy road?"

And then there is this, during a discussion of possible ports of call in South America:

"I am far less sanguine about Buenos Aires and the River Plate, however. From the very beginning the region was colonized by the offscourings of the worst parts of Andalusia, slightly relieved by a few shiploads of criminals; and in recent years the mongrel descendants of these half-Moorish ruffians have been under the tyrannical rule of a series of low demagogues, disreputable even by South American standards."

I can never get tired of ethnic stereotypes. Here is Jack talking about a ship he's chasing:

"I believe she is as innocent as a babe unborn: takes us for a Spaniard. We put all that filth up there to encourage her to think so."

I have nothing whatsoever against Spaniards, by the way. But neither can I imagine how anybody could be bored by talk of ethnic peculiarities, their possible sources, their varying perceptions by friend and foe, by the evolution of these perceptions through time. The average Westerner of today believes that a freer discussion of these topics would encourage discord, but in my late-Soviet youth ethnic jokes were commonplace, yet ethnic conflict was much less frequent and less serious than in the modern West.

More anachronisms:

1) At one point Stephen observes a fellow doctor pull a tooth. The guy tugs at the patient's hair, pinches his cheek, shouts at him, has a drummer playing nearby, all to distract from the pain. No one does that anymore. The social standing of doctors is too high now for them to care that much about your feelings.

Yes, we have better anaesthetics, but there's still a lot of pain in medicine. In my experience distraction works at least as well as pain killers, that is to say not very well at all, but better than nothing. If you have a kidney stone on your right side, pinch your left flank. This will divide your attention. Talk to people, especially ones you don't know well. The mental effort will take away from the pain's share of your mind.

2) There is a pretty funny joke early in this novel that depends on the reader knowing the myth of Cadmus.

Starting with the Homeric period a large portion of the cultural references used by educated Europeans remained the same. When Christianity became Rome's state religion in the 4th century, Biblical references were added to the pile. Then in the 20th century 95% of this pile was thrown out. For the first time in more than a hundred generations a majority of Western writers don't know anything about Cadmus, Niobe, Danaë, etc.

The loss of continuity seems tragic to me. No one will want to look up references to the Sopranos or the Daily Show 80 years from now. Once you learn a bit about the Bible and Greek myth, two millenia of Western writing lose a lot of their obscurity. The movie-and-TV age will eventually seem like the Papuan highlands, in fractiousness almost as much as in the coarseness of its culture. Every 20-year section of it will have to be explained by a separate set of forgotten cultural references. Who will bother trying?