A. Steven Toby
- Pubblicato su Amazon.com
Formato: Copertina flessibile
This is by my count the 14th of 20 completed novels by Mr. O'Brian about his popular Napoleonic War characters, naval officer Jack Aubrey and physician/spy Dr. Stephen Maturin. These novels, while many people consider them literature, could also be looked on as genre fiction, worthy successors to Horatio Hornblower with a somewhat similar plot: British naval crews administer severe drubbings to the lubberly French, or sometimes to their allies. They are good entertainment and also teach you a lot about the period.
However, the Aubrey/Maturin novels differ significantly in concept from earlier entries in the genre. Mr. O'Brian says in the forewords to each of the books that he has used ships' logs, official reports, and contemporary newspaper articles as the sources of his plots. Like Shakespeare, he has not invented any actions, although he must have filled in subplots and minor characters, about which official sources would be silent. This is both good and bad: good for authenticity, but bad in that it gives the books an episodic character. They are a "slice of life" rather than dominated by considerations of theme, although we could readily invent themes to suit a world war that raged for 22 years with two minor pauses, devastating much of Europe and accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths -- a war where both sides laid claim to the moral high ground.
These novels are also rich in period detail, and not only of ships and seamanship. Mr. O'Brian has absorbed the seamanship of the time, providing us with solid examples of heaving the log, tacking ship, reefing topsails, and handling of the big guns, but he is also an expert in the entire world of the period. (Readers who have visited some of the places featured in the novels will scarcely recognize them). He knows what people ate, how they dressed, what plants and animals lived in various parts of the world (necessary to the stories because Dr. Maturin is an amateur naturalist and member of the Royal Society), and of course a great deal about how doctors treated illnesses and injuries at the time. He knows about the lives of famous people who lived in the period and has his principals meet a number of them; in this book, Mr. Raffles, for whom the present-day Raffles Hotel in Singapore is named, appears as a character. O'Brian knows the slang current among both seamen and the general public, and uses it extensively so that it gradually assumes a familiar flavor to readers. On top of that, he has a wry, British sense of humor; for example, when Raffles asks Capt. Aubrey how he feels about corruption (in view of the dockyard's slow progress getting his ship ready for sea, hinting that perhaps a well placed bribe would help), he replies, "I love the word...I have corrupted [anyone]... who could help get my ship to sea a little quicker and in slightly better fighting trim."
As a result, the novels are sprawling, complex reads that can't be finished in a handful of sittings, having a stately pace like a 74 in a light breeze. My acquaintances among the nautically literate divide about equally among those who love them profoundly and those who feel they are cumbersome and pokey compared to the simpler Hornblower stories. It's a question of personal taste. As I've aged, I've come to appreciate Mr. O'Brian more and more, and now think he is the leader of the nautical history genre.
In this one, the action starts with the crew of Aubrey's last ship cast away on an uninhabited island. As they are realizing that the island's resources are inadequate to keep them all fed for very long, they are visited by Dyak pirates, and there is a bloody battle before they repulse the attackers. I looked up "Dyak" in Wikipedia and discovered that there really is such an ethnic group; they live on the island of Borneo, and were famous as headhunters in the period of this book. The British are later rescued by a Chinese crew that comes to harvest bird's nests from a cave on the island to make the delicacy of bird's nest soup with. They proceed to Batavia, where Mr. Raffles is the British governor -- I'm aware that Batavia was a Dutch colony earlier in history and didn't bother looking up when it changed hands, but I'm sure Mr. O'Brian is to be relied upon for these sorts of details. At Batavia, Raffles gives the Captain a Dutch 20-gun ship, which assumes the title name -- it's one of the royal titles of the king of Pulo Prabang, whom we've met in the previous book, "The Thirteen Gun Salute." On board the Nutmeg, having fitted her out, they proceed to sea and try to intercept a French frigate that was their rival negotiator at Pulo Prabang; eventually they overtake her but she proves a deadly opponent, forcing Nutmeg to retreat in a night-long chase with both ships blazing away with their chase guns. Morning comes and the British frigate Surprise joins Nutmeg, reversing the odds; the French frigate tries to escape and because of damage sustained earlier, sinks, with the crew barely having time to take to the boats. About halfway through the book, the protagonists transfer to the Surprise and sail to Sydney, Australia. On the way they stop for fresh vegetables on an island whose inhabitants have been exterminated by an outbreak of smallpox, except for two little girls, whom Dr. Maturin takes on board; he names them Sarah and Emily. They speedily adjust to ship's routine and learn that a different English is spoken by the officers than by the enlisted men, and they learn both varieties. At Sydney, Maturin tries to leave them at an orphanage and at 2 AM the night afterwards they come back screaming to the ship, climb up the foremast and declare they are not leaving it for any reason! It is such deftly handled details that make these books so entertaining.
As my mother warned me a long time ago, you shouldn't learn history from a novel, however well researched it is. Even Patrick O'Brian makes an occasional mistake. In this book, he introduces a disease called the "marthambles", which sounds much like appendicitis, but if you google the word you'll find that it first appears in a novel published by another author in the 1970's. It isn't in the Oxford unabridged dictionary and seems to have been adopted by O'Brian from the other novel. Also, in this book, the ship's doctors climb to the mizzen top and sit down on the furled studding sails. Studding sails were practically never used on the mizzen mast for a variety of reasons, as explained in "Seamanship in the Age of Sail" by John Harland. So, even in authenticity there is an occasional lapse, but they are very few and far between.
This book will keep your attention to the last sentence. You'll forget who you are, where you are, and what you were supposed to be doing.