Monday, June 24, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's H.M.S. SURPRISE #ReReads2013

It's interesting, isn't it, that these novels appear to have been marketed originally as "Jack Aubrey novels" (see first edition cover art to the left). But where, oh where, would Jack Aubrey be without Don Esteban Maturin y Domanova, better known as good old Dr. Stephen Maturin, Spock to Aubrey's Kirk if ever there was one.

As it happens, we get a pretty good idea as this novel opens, finding Jack alone in acting command of the crack frigate Lively, which he admires and enjoys only in principle -- likening it internally to a brother's officer's wife, elegant and chaste and living her life according to sound scientific principles. Not very sexy, but not a slovenly waste of wood and canvas, either. He is alone in command because Stephen, revealed last novel as a valued secret agent, is on assignment and, as it tuns out, in peril, because the new First Lord of the Admiralty blundered into mentioning him by name in a public meeting (Plamegate, anyone?), a remarkable thing that did not go unremarked by enemy agents!

So while in Post Captain both Jack and Stephen engaged in a ridiculous dual escape, in H.M.S. Surprise the former starts off the story enacting a rescue of the latter, who was captured on one of his spy missions, in deadly earnest. That it is from the very island where they met --Minorca, Port Mahon, since fallen into the hands of the Spanish who are, in 1804, allied with France (the French turned on them in 1808), makes it all the more poignant and interesting. It's a very broken and battered Stephen who joins the Surprise's crew, and his ordeal is far from over: no sooner is he aboard than he's itching to get off the ship again to go explore a rock in the middle of the sea, a rock teeming with bird and insect life the likes of which might well be nondescript, in the old fashioned phrase*, which, this is Patrick O'Brian, so everything gets an old fashioned phrase at some point.

And that's just the first act!

Really, I generally think that if one is, for some unfathomable reason, going to read just one Aubrey/Maturin novel it should probably be this one, because it packs pretty much everything we love about O'Brian's creations into one dense little book -- staggering geographical scope (England to Minorca to India to Africa to...!), slapstick escapes/rescues, hot naval battle action (this time with a fleet of merchant ships having to fight like military vessels, with Jack having to engage in hard core diplomacy as well as seat-of-his-pants strategizing to pull it off), charming/brutal scenes of shipboard life, and perils ashore in love and war. Especially in love. Poor Stephen. Poor Jack. But mostly, in this novel, poor Stephen, for Diana Villiers leads him quite a merry chase all over India and beyond; he even winds up fighting a duel over her.** And then there's Dil. Ah, Dil.

And hey, everybody, it's okay. I still have a heart. I know this because once again the story of Dil, the wise-beyond-her-years little girl in Bombay who adopts Stephen and more or less keeps him out of trouble during his wanderings there -- she considers him a sort of idiot saint who can probably fly if he chooses, but would definitely fly the wrong way if not smack into something and knock himself out -- still makes me tear up. I picture her as being played by Sarala Kariyawasam. Brilliantly. Except Sarala might have been too cute. Ah, me.

*Meaning "not yet described" rather than "not worth describing because it's so boring" as we tend to use the term nowadays.

**And getting wounded. And surgically removing a pistol ball from his own gut in a scene wonderfully depicted in the film adaptation of Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World but in the film his wound is gotten quite, quite differently. And much less tragically.

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