Friday, December 08, 2006

By Patrick O’Brian

I think few writers would have chosen to start a novel about war at sea in the Napoleonic era with a scene about two guys who get on each others’ nerves during the performance of a string quartet. That’s exactly where Patrick O’Brian planted Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, tow of the oddest action heroes to come down the pike.

Aubrey is a regulation English sea-captain, bluff, bold, and hearty. Even so, he has a hidden streak of self-doubt, but not too much. Though he is a most discerning seafarer, Aubrey is charmingly oblivious to anyone who is not a sailor under his command.

Maturin is even more self-centered than Aubrey, but also self-reflective enough to admit it. He is an ignoramus at sea, and plays the part of the landsman who asks the questions the reader needs answered. In other respects Maturin has a scientist’s eye for exacting detail. His introduction to the world of an armed sloop in the service of His Majesty the King is a daft variation on the participant-observer process of an anthropologist. O’Brian’s pairing of Aubrey and Maturin is the damnedest thing since Oscar and Felix got an apartment together.

Because you must understand that O’Brian turns the conventions of the action tale upside down. This is a novel about a friendship between two unlike men under very unusual circumstances. The circumstances are Aubrey’s promotion to commander of a sloop of war based in the Mediterranean and Maturin’s recruitment as ship’s doctor (not, let it be noted, a surgeon who is, in British usage, a very inferior creature). Aubrey has a simple imperative, keep his crew and ship happy and seaworthy so he can capture lots of enemy vessels that he’ll get paid for (in those days being a naval officer was a little like piracy, you got a share of the loot). Maturin has to adapt himself to his role as lynchpin of morale. It’s not an easy task when Aubrey’s lieutenant is an old friend of Maturin who just happens to know him from their days as Irish nationalist revolutionaries.

The battles at sea are pretty thrilling here, but O’Brian knows that war is mostly sitting around (or sailing) getting ready and then waiting for a battle. O’Brian fills the space with odd vignettes, peculiar characters, and conversation. You’ll learn what a loblolly boy is and how a sin-eater may perform that role. We get exchanges between exiled Irishmen like this:

He is an ill-looking fellow, with a sly, Castle-informer look on his face. And the character of an informer is more despised in our country than in any other, is it not? Rightly so, in my opinion. Though, indeed, the creatures swarm there.

This is adventure for the thinking man. It’s a blazing war-story filled with quirky characters who exist in a fully-realized 19th century world. Read Master and Commander and you’ll see why it is one of the most popular series of sea-stories ever written.
-Dave Hardy

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