Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Mutiny of the Bounty by Guy Murchie

The first thing to arrest the eye is the title: the Mutiny of the Bounty. Not Mutiny on the Bounty, as the movies made of this event are called. The difference in prepositions might seem meaningless, but the two words do create two different images in the mind. A mutiny on a ship calls up pictures of men arguing, having it out as equals in a public place. A mutiny of a ship suggests the entire thing sailing away, as if it were a creature with one mind choosing to abandon its duty and never be seen again.

Which is what happened. The Bounty sailed from England at Christmastime, 1787, and never returned. Many other of his Majesty's eighteenth-century ships were lost through battle or the hazards of the sea, but a mutiny was something different. Once their crime was bruited about, mutineers were pursued across oceans for years, brought back to court martial in London when found, and hanged if convicted. No nation -- particularly not England at the beginning of the era of the French revolutionary wars -- could afford to let its navy possibly stay intact and functional and possibly not, depending on whether or not the men on board all those expensive ships felt they were being treated well.

Any retelling of the Bounty's tale must revolve, therefore, around the character of Captain (technically Lieutenant) William Bligh, and on what he must have been or done to so outrage his crew -- some of them -- that they gave up everything to overturn his months' or, at most, few years' worth of authority over them. The best they could hope for, upon committing their hideous crime, was freedom but eternal exile from home on some island somewhere -- and not on big, lovely Tahiti, their original destination and the place where they found women. It was far too much a British port of call already. There seems to have been no possibility of their sailing to England, with him in tow, to explain themselves and live. Why not use a little more patience? What did Bligh do to make them desperate?

Judging by the diaries officers and crew kept -- Bligh judiciously edited his before publishing years later -- the unforgivable things he seems to have done involved food and drink in some way, the theft of it, accusations that they (especially Fletcher Christian, the aristocrat) had stolen from him, and threats, carried out, to reduce everyone to near-starvation rations if thefts were not made good and accusations admitted. Murchie's book, which is in large part a series of quotations from these sources, repeats for example the scene that moviegoers will remember from the old Charles Laughton and Clark Gable movie: here the men learn, even before they sail, that the captain has commandeered some cheeses meant to sustain them on the voyage and has sent them to his own house for safekeeping and, presumably, for sale later. Later they were made to eat pumpkins instead of biscuit. Grog rations were reduced to almost nil as punishment for some group offense or other. Much later, Bligh accused Christian of stealing coconuts. Floggings, though Bligh's were exceptionally bad, and the brutalities of any sea voyage seem to have been things they could tolerate. It was the quarrels over food and theft, and Bligh's feverishly obnoxious language, that were the beginning of being too much.

It's hard to imagine what must have been the misery of military service aboard a sailing ship in the days before steam power, and to imagine the knowledge it took to pilot these vessels around the planet and home again over the course of voyages lasting years. Bligh's instructions were to sail from England across the Atlantic, around the tip of South America, up to Tahiti, pick up some breadfruit trees, and then sail across the rest of the Pacific, through the East Indies, across the Indian Ocean, around the tip of southern Africa, across the Atlantic again to Jamaica, there to deposit the breadfruit trees (good food for slaves, it was hoped), "refresh your people," and then return straight across the Atlantic to England, "repairing to Spithead." No power but the power of the wind in one's sails; no technology but the knowledge of currents, stars, and the position of the sun in the sky, knowing north from east and geometry and such. Any modern person would be as helpless as a baby. Bligh found "Otaheite," though he had to go the other way around the bottom of the world to do it, the westerly winds at Cape Horn being impossible to fight. Fletcher Christian found Pitcairn Island, not by accident but because he had read of its existence and wanted to take refuge there. When Bligh and his eighteen loyal sailors were put off from the Bounty in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific in April 1789, he kept them all alive on rations of a few spoonfuls of bread and water a day, and brought them to refuge in Dutch Timor after a three-thousand-mile voyage lasting a month and a half. The loyal souls in the open boat ended up almost mutinying, too. (Years later Bligh was an object of two more mutinies, once as a commander in a British fleet and once as a colonial governor in Australia.)

Naval service was horrific, and could turn even worse at any time. But there must have been something in particular about Bligh, or perhaps about the conditions of this voyage, which led the judges at the court martial to have some mercy when the mutineers were hunted down in the South Pacific and brought back to England. After his mid-ocean, apparently spur-of-the-moment mutiny, Fletcher Christian had taken the Bounty back to Tahiti, dropped off some men who wanted to stay there even at risk of discovery and arrest, had picked up twelve native women and six native men, and sailed for "uninhabited" Pitcairn with only eight remaining shipmates. Of the ten caught on Tahiti and tried for mutiny in London (they were shipwrecked on the way), only three were convicted and hanged in October 1792, not quite five years after the Bounty had first sailed. Some were acquitted; a few were simply pardoned.

Christian and the men with him on Pitcairn, whites and native Polynesians, ended up mostly dying violently in fights over the women. Christian and four other whites were all shot on one day; strangely enough, so many men killed each other that the little community in a few years was comprised of four surviving white men and ten native women and assorted children. Eventually, the women learned to decamp into the recesses of the island, taking the men's guns with them, whenever they were annoyed. Meanwhile, the men made a still and began producing hard liquor from the "tee root." Two more men died. The last two got religion. Pitcairn and its people having been discovered by an American ship in 1808, the last surviving mutineer was agreed by other mariners to be " 'whatever his errors or crimes ... at present a very worthy man and useful to navigators who traverse this immense ocean.' "

As for Bligh, at the time without question the hero of the Bounty, he lived out a glorious naval career, achieved the rank of vice admiral of the blue -- the rank of a man who presides over court martials -- and "died in England in 1817 at the age of 63."

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Pitcairn Island: roughly, just to the right and just below dead center of the map.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana

The definition of originality has been said to be, not that you create something new, but that you create something that cannot be imitated. Raymond Chandler did this when he wrote his four Philip Marlowe detective novels, beginning with The Big Sleep (1939). Here we meet Marlowe, the solitary, hard-drinking, tough-talking private eye working the seamier side of Los Angeles, solving crimes two or three steps ahead of the police (and the reader), and fending off crazed blondes with calm professionalism as he goes. What starts out as a case of blackmail quickly balloons into several interlocking cases involving porn, gambling, missing persons, and of course, murder. All of this takes place in a decidedly un-glamorous and strangely unpeopled L.A., full only of shabby office buildings, anonymous mom and pop diners, and plain frame houses amid drifting Pacific fogs. It rains perpetually.

There are great lines in the book -- "you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes," a voice was "as false as an usherette's eyelashes" -- and the mystery is mostly beautifully paced. But Marlowe, and Chandler's whole style, have become so iconic that it is hard to appreciate how original it all may have been. True novelty may be impossible to imitate, but it can be parodied (Steve Martin's film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid comes to mind), and when it comes to lines about an usherette's eyelashes, it's hard not to find this beginning to be unintentionally funny. Marlowe himself, with his deadpan, I-shoulda-known-better narration, actually began to remind me of Bertie Wooster, the cheery, bewildered twit of P.G. Wodehouse's comic Jeeves and Wooster novels. There is little difference in tone between: "I was in the bathroom, wondering what there was going to be for breakfast while I massaged the spine with a rough towel" (Wooster) and "If you have anything that's worrying you beyond endurance, drop up ... I'll be oiling my machine gun" (Marlowe). Since both characters date from the same era, it may be that the slang of the time accounts for superficial resemblances between them. Gals "leg it," a detective is a "peeper," and when things are good they're "jakeloo." It is a bit distracting.

The question is, can anybody read The Big Sleep with pure delight today, just as a great tale? I found the solution to the mystery disappointing -- Chandler seems to have been known for messy plots, including totally unvisited subsidiary murders right in the middle of things -- and I doubt I will move on after this to Farewell, My Lovely, or the other two novels in this particular omnibus collection. It is all a piece of Americana, certainly, but as such has a kind of stale museum air to it that is, in the long run, uninviting. Maybe Chandler was original to a fault. He can be parodied, but not imitated and maybe not surpassed -- but, after one dose, he also can't be much further explored.