Thursday, September 09, 2010


By Patrick O’Brian

If you have seen Master and Commander and expect more of the same from Patrick O’Brian’s novel, I must warn you the film really has nothing to do with the book, except so far as they have the same characters. Not that either one is any bit less than excellent, they just do different things and tell different stories.

Peter Weir’s film is about action. But the nature of war at sea in the Age of Sail, meant that inaction was the norm. One spent months at sea going somewhere, looking for someone, and at the end they might shoot a cannon at you, or not as the case may be. While most writers just skip that whole “sail across the world bit”, O’Brian made it his specialty. His novels are about the closed-in life of sailors and their brief glimpses of intensely varied cultures ashore. Some reviewers compare O’Brian to Jane Austen, I tend to think of Jack Kerouac.

If Far Side of the World is Jane Austen, it’s Austen with the occasional flogging and amputation. Captain Jack Aubrey has to work to get the HMS Surprise across the world. And the local cultures aren’t just window dressing, Aubrey and his good friend Dr. Maturin find themselves in the right church, but wrong pew, as uncomprehending observers of somebody else’s nautical adventure when they meet a band of sea-going Polynesian Amazons. The seas are full of adventure.

The talk isn’t bad either. O’Brian fills the book with dry wit and absurd humor. His characters speak a distinctive early 19th century dialect that is fresh, without being a strain. There are vast amounts of nautical jargon, but when something critical needs to be conveyed to the reader, a lubberly landsman is on hand to ask the captain what’s going on.

So if you want the taste of salt horse and weevil biscuit without having to stray too far from Jack in the Box, you could ship out with the HMS Surprise.

-Dave Hardy

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