Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Far Tortuga: A Novel, by Peter Matthiessen

Chapter 40 of Moby-Dick is a literal drama, with various crew members of the whaling ship the Pequod speaking their parts as if in a Shakespearean drama.  Although other chapters suggest Melville was reading heavily in Shakespearean tragedy, as indeed he was, I remember the shock of this chapter the first time I read it.  It’s what makes the novel such a revolutionary work, such an unexpected and untimely work, part of the reason it still resonates with me so strongly today.

Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga: A Novel (Random House, 1975) is written in the style of Melville’s chapter—less Shakespearean, more in the style of Miller or O’Neill, except with the impressionistic poetry of Tennessee William’s stage directions. The novel tells the story of a crew of turtlers in the Caribbean, on their last voyage on an old and broken down turtle boat, under the command of an embittered captain who is hunting for a full haul of turtles.  The method is naturalistic.  Much of the tale is told through the direct language of the crew, who speak in a heavy dialect inflected with English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, with a heavy dose of African words.  The crew is mixed and diverse racially.  The dialect is so rich and heavy that it takes getting used to.  The end result is poetry of a deep and intense kind.  Matthiessen introduces each chapter with a paragraph or two that describes the scene, the setting or the weather or the sky.  But most of the novel is simply the language of the crew talking to one another.

Captain X is the Ahab of this novel.  He’s cruel and bitter and contemptuous of the men on his vessel.  He berates them without hesitation and at length.  Several desert.  His father dies.  After an attack by a group of renegade Jamaicans, the ship founders on a reef and sinks.

The Far Tortugas is intense.  It’s difficult because of its stylistic method.  It’s also strangely distinctive and beautiful.


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