Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Fortune of War

Two weevils crept from the crumbs. ‘You see those weevils, Stephen?’ said Jack solemnly.
‘I do.’
‘Which would you choose?’
‘There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.’
‘But you suppose you had to choose?’
‘Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.’
‘There I have you,’ cried Jack. ‘You are bit—you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!’

If you’ve been reading for awhile you’re aware of my tradition to read one Master and Commander book every year (though I may have to step it up a notch as I realized I will be 38 by the time I finish, at this rate! ). Desolation Island was very good, and The Fortune of War continued the upward trend. I truly envy O’Brian’s ability to churn out novel after novel with the same characters and roughly the same setting and make each one fresh, funny, exciting, and full of heart.

This book begins with Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon (and spy) Stephen Maturin arriving in the Spice Islands after the debacle at Desolation Island. When Jack tells the Admiral there what has brought them and the battered Leopard to such a state, he is in fact recapping the last book for anyone who had forgotten, which is a handy device. The Leopard isn’t really seaworthy anymore, so Jack, Stephen, and a few of Jack’s midshipmen are to take passage on La Flèche back to England and take a new command there. Stephen is upset that they’re leaving the Spice Islands so soon, not giving him a chance to gather more natural specimens, but Jack is looking forward to heading home and seeing his beloved wife Sophie again. Even seeing a letter the worried Sophie has written makes him homesick: The sight of that familiar hand struck Jack with astonishing force, and for a moment he could have sworn he heard her voice.

They have, however, had more than enough contact with natural specimens, living and pickled, that Stephen has picked up on Desolation Island and elsewhere: ‘Now, sir,’ cried the Captain . . . addressing the wombat, one of the numerous body of marsupials brought into the ship by her surgeon, a natural philosopher—‘give it up directly, d’ye hear me, there?’ (Jack then asks Stephen to take back the wombat who is eating his hat, and then it climbs on Stephen and looks up in his eyes “with affection.”) Stephen, whose ability to be good at nearly everything is as infuriating as it is attractive, makes a winning contribution toward a game of cricket that is very nearly like Matt Smith kicking butt in “The Lodger.” On board La Flèche, life is rather pleasant, with long and rambling officers’ dinners (which is where the “weevil” story comes from), aside from growing tensions with America. It is 1812, and it’s not long before war is declared. In the meantime, though, Captain Yorke and Captain Aubrey have time for discussions about novels:

‘Every novel I have ever looked into is all about love; and I have looked into a good many, because Sophie loves them, and I read aloud to her while she knits, in the evening. All about love.’
‘Of course they are,’ said Yorke. ‘What else raises your blood, your spirits, your whole being, to the highest pitch, so that life is triumphant, or tragic, as the case may be, and so that every day is worth a year of common life? When you sit trembling for a letter? When the whole of life is filled with meaning, double-shotted?’

And Stephen makes a friend in the Scottish surgeon aboard La Flèche, an ill-mannered, pipe-smoking, keen observer of nature, and they spend their hours dissecting Maturin’s specimens. These moments seemed a little too idyllic to me, and I knew that O’Brian, being the storyteller that he notoriously is, was going to have disaster strike.

It did, and you can’t say it came from an unexpected quarter: the surgeon’s pipe set the entire ship ablaze, and all those not killed in the fire or the boat’s inevitable sinking are stranded in a small boat surviving on nothing but biscuit for weeks. Stephen, of course, suffered similar deprivations a few books earlier when he was stranded on an island for days with blue-footed boobies. But the men, including Aubrey, are dangerously close to starvation and dehydration before a miraculous rain of flying squid in a tempest! O’Brian casually refers to things like cannibalism and pedestry, but then the story has picked back up again. It is, as usual, riveting stuff.

They are picked up by Java, but it isn’t long before the U.S.S. Constitution appears. I knew it was a formidable foe because in middle school I wrote a short story about the ship, which had among its sailors an impostor named Lucy Brewer who insisted on disguising herself as a boy to fight in the war. She doesn’t make an appearance here, alas, but in a surprising defeat for “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, the crew of the Java surrender, and Jack is taken to a hospital outside Boston where he is treated for a shattered arm and generally low spirits. Unusually, half of the book takes place on land, and it’s daringly set on the East coast of the United States.

Stephen is a liminal figure in almost every circumstance. He is Irish, Catholic, and a Republican, but is working as a spy for His Majesty’s government. This is because he despises Napoleon as a tyrant and also because his mother was Catalan. However, his equivocal attitude toward the War of 1812 is echoed not only by some other characters in the book, but, it seems, by Patrick O’Brian himself. The Admiral’s sentiments on Americans are some typical American-bashing: ‘Damned rascals—convicts themselves, for the most part, piebald mongrels for the rest . . . Disloyal—hang the whole lot of them, the whole shooting-match.’ However, after declaration of war, Bonden (coxswain) tells Stephen that the lower decks of Java are not altogether pleased—they consist of mostly hands taken from merchant ships or those pressed on shore. All had American shipmates. They could not see the sense in fighting Americans: there were half a dozen Americans aboard at this moment, and they were practically the same as Englishmen—no airs or graces about them—and you could not say fairer than that. Fighting the French was different . . .

The battles Stephen and Jack have to fight in the second half of the novel are quite different than the ones they usually face. Jack is laid up in Dr. Choate’s progressive hospital among the mentally deranged, and I have no doubt that O’Brian research has led him to recreate the hospital from true reports. However, Stephen is much more the focus of this section. He meets again two characters central to the last book, Michael Herapath and mother of his child, would-be spy Louisa Wogan. Wogan eventually proves incidental but Herapath helps Stephen and Jack escape with their lives in a daring piece of espionage and danger that makes James Bond look like child’s play (strengthening rumors that O’Brian was himself a spy in World War II).

The continuing humorous and philosophical examinations of the differences between Americans and Brits give some levity to the cat-and-mouse (Americans can make neither coffee nor tea to the protagonists’ likings, and southern and northerners are compared). But at the crux of the conflict is Stephen coming in contact once again with Diana Villiers, the woman he has loved with desperation for about four books now. When he does finally meet her again, he begins to wonder if he still loves her after all. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much time to wonder, as she is in as much danger as he and Jack are. SPOILERS My heart was keening for Stephen when he asked Diana to marry him, again, after his first rejection—I know no good can come of this. /SPOILERS

I was shocked when Stephen said “Ugh” to the Indian porter to the hospital, but O’Brian had this fascinating exchange up his sleeve:

‘You would not be astonished [that I hate all American government] if you were a native of this country, an aboriginal native. . . . Why did you say Ugh to me?’
‘I looked upon it as a usual greeting in the language of your nation—the Huron is represented as saying Ugh to the paleface in many authors, French and English. But if I am mistaken, sir, I ask your pardon: my intent was civil, though perhaps inept.’
‘Most of the Hurons I know have every reason to say Ugh to the paleface, French, English, or American: in the language that I speak—and I must tell you, sir, that there is an infinity of languages spoken by the original possessors of this continent Ugh is an expression of disgust, repulsion, dislike. I had thought of resenting it, but it appeared to me that you meant no offense; and then I have a certain fellow-feeling for you; we are, after all, both defeated, both victims of the Americans.’

There is one last daring battle at sea in the Shannon versus the Chesapeake, and O’Brian ends on a truly infuriating cliffhanger. I speculated in Desolation Island that Stephen and Diana’s story was at last going to reach a conclusion in this book, but I think that conclusion is still far off . . .