Sunday, March 30, 2008

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Master and Commander is the first of Patrick O’Brian’s series of sixteen Aubrey-Maturin novels, that is, novels set in the British Royal Navy of the late 1700s and early 1800s whose main characters are Captain Jack Aubrey and medical officer Dr. Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is the gallant, diamond-in-the-rough type, fearless and good, if somewhat less than whip-smart. Maturin is the scholar, the landlubber, the reader’s stand-in: nautical terms and rules of engagement are explained to him, and he in turn observes Captain Aubrey and the ship’s crew for us.

Since Patrick O’Brian has great respect for his readers’ abilities, this book will probably provoke one of two reactions right away. You might simply give up at all the technical sailing vocabulary, or you might decide to let the mizzenmast-and-fo’c’sle talk wash over you, and get on with the gist of the story. The story concerns the activities of the sloop Sophie, cruising the western Mediterranean in 1800 under orders to protect neutral shipping convoys and do what damage it can to French and Spanish interests in this era of the Napoleonic wars. There are half a dozen fiery battles, interspersed with emotional battles among Aubrey, Maturin, and the ship’s first officer Dillon, all of whom keep dangerous secrets from each other.

One of the marks of a really good historical novel is that it recreates attitudes and situations that we would never have thought of, precisely because times have changed. Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin both are devoted amateur musicians, who take time off whenever they can to hear concerts and play duets together. They use wonderful archaic words like "tumefaction" and "mammothrept." They also have unthinking religious prejudices which would horrify us, but which are truly not sinister given the characters’ fundamentally decent behavior throughout the book. Jack Aubrey "hates Papists," because he "heard that they are cruel." In truth he doesn’t hate anybody, but the author has given him a character trait appropriate to an 18th-century Englishman. Lovers of history will appreciate the glorious little trick by which O'Brian ties his fictional Jack into the life of the very real Samuel Johnson, via a girl -- also real -- named Queenie.

What the reader will take away from Master and Commander, above all, is an appreciation of the fantastic amount of work and knowledge that went into manning the sailing ships of two centuries ago. Sophie would be a mare’s nest of sails and ropes for a modern time-traveler, not to mention the confusion of loading, swabbing out, and firing cannons by hand, and of making a ship move by adjusting to the wind. (Only the North African Muslim pirate galleys had the luxury of oar power, propelled as they were by Christian slaves. Captain Aubrey encounters this authentic bit of the 18th century Mediterranean, too.) O’Brian further mesmerizes by pointing out that, while his characters are fictional, his whole story comes from primary sources. "The admirable men of those times," he says in a short preface, "are best celebrated in their own splendid actions."

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