Thursday, June 7, 2012

“A circumnavigation through Maritime History” by Rick Harsch

With a few friends I have been privileged to read the unpublished book “A circumnavigation through Maritime History” by LibraryThing author Rick Harsch. 

I say privileged because it is a rare occasion that a published writer allows you to have a look at his work before it is even printed. More than a sneak preview, Rick allowed us, even insisted, that we would comment each time a new chapter was posted.

RH is an American writer exiled to Slovenia. He lives in Izola which is a pretty cool place to live. (especially during the summer months). We don’t know much about him, except that Rick loves India and that he loves snakes too! Most of what we do know about him, you can read on his profile page on LT. You can also try to imagine who he is by following his active participation on the social network or read one of his books. “Arjun and the Good Snake” for instance which is an Ophidiological Account of Six Weeks in India without Alcohol, or “The Driftless Zone”, or even “Billy Verite”, or “The Sleep of Aborigines” and of course Kramberger z opico.

When Rick asked us to comment on his chapters, I did. Yes, I am that kind of guy, always a good public, but with some hindsight, and now that I have read the entire book, I understand that it was not wise to comment as long as the last page was not turned. 

Why? Well quite simply, because it is a history book on navigation like you have never read before. Of course not, Rick would add, because it is not a history book on navigation, it is a circumnavigation through History and through Navigation and if you never read a circumnavigation, well this is your chance.

I was wrong-footed ( Yes I am that kind of a reader ) by the introduction that the book was a result of a cooperation with the Slovene University who has classes on Maritime matters. Now Slovenia might be a cool place, but not as cool as Rick himself, so, for whatever the book turned out to be, I cannot imagine that it would ever be used on the curriculum of the University of Ljubljana. If it would, then Slovenia is an even cooler place then I thought it was.

The book opens with considering the sailing crafts and the social conditions of poor Indian fisherman on the west coast of India….today. Normally a Maritime history book would start in the Mediterranean, many centuries ago, so I was surprised, but only a bit, because I know other books on Maritime History who begin like that: from the present to the past and back. 

Recovering from my surprise, I was immediately enthused by the fact that Rick was original in his approach and he got immediately my full attention. 

I gave my opinion on certain unimportant matters (Yes am I that kind of guy ) but kept reading through the captivating pages of that first chapter. I forgot to tell you that Rick writes extremely well and that he is very funny, funny that is in a cool acid way. Very entertaining, believe me. 

Rick started to explain that there was a civilization in India, even before the Portuguese arrived, there was even civilization in East – Africa and even in Madagascar. The true Barbarians, Rick reminded us were the fucking Portuguese. Well he did not exactly use that word, but we understood immediately that this was how he meant it. Yes, Rick is rather cool in this cool – acid way. Now I will not hide that I was shocked by Harsch’s harsh words, not because he was so biased against the fucking Portuguese, ( he did not really say it like that but, you know what I mean ) but because you have to be objective in a history book, especially so in a Maritime history book. I carefully reminded him that he could not do that, but Rick said that he had decided to say it like it was and that was it. 

Of course, I was a bit frustrated ( I am that kind of a guy ) but I did not know at that moment that I was reading a circumnavigation. And so I had to read that the heroes of navigational history were opportunist, murderers and conquerors and even in some cases bloodthirsty sadists. Not nice of Rick to remind us of that, but deep down we know he is right. Rick would make sure that we would not skip the paragraphs which did not suit our moods. 

Still I tried to make some intelligent remarks, like there were no such things as 18 m waves in the Arabian Sea, as if it would matter if a wave was 12 , 14, 16 or even 36 meters if you tried to cross the Arabian sea on a Dhow lashed together with ropes.

By now, I had understood that I was not reading a Maritime History but a genuine circumnavigation and so I shut up and listened.

Plain stealing preceded Trade at sea and Trade included much stealing. War at sea was so cruel it could be funny. Human condition at Sea was utterly absurd that beneath the macho gloss of that Sailors world, true men sought comfort with each other. When distant tribes finally met, they would more often than not spear, rape bludgeon or set fire to each other and Mabel, the captain’s wife, would fuck the crew… yes right there on the table.

Rick illustrates his book with hagiographic snippets of the lives of Cabeza de Vaca, William Bligh, Captain Cook, Surcouf even and he fears not to delve into the more unknown topics as the Uskoks of Senj and the apogee of the Ragusan system. ( No I will not tell you what it is, you will have to read Rick’s book ).

Rick also reminds us that a few lines of fiction on maritime matters are often more telling than pages of facts and when there are no facts, Rick invents them like when he is the last man standing on the doomed Aurora, and he describes the details he witnessed through his inner eye.

To pepper his text, Rick adds song lyrics like the ones of Gordon Lightfoot or Bob Dylan, he quotes Melville’s Moby Dick, Bligh’s blog ( boat – log ) but also recent newspaper clips. However interesting, there is too much of Bligh’s log in Rick’s book but that is my sole remark.

Rick does not forget to remind us that not only is Maritime terminology a matter of life and death but that each etymologic analysis of a word is in fact a micro summary of Maritime History.

Speaking about summaries, what is this circumnavigation? Rick’s book indeed defies categorization…..”Yes what is it?” , I ask myself . Well written ? Damn yes ! Entertaining ? Highly entertaining ! Very funny even , not only because of Rick’s writing, but also because of his choice of topics and the conclusions he draws! Interesting ? yes yes yes, there are so many things which you want to develop, look up, control, compare and maybe that’s how we should understand Rick’s circumnavigation: it is an introduction, a peek allowed to the interested reader of the riches in that vast treasure trove of Maritime History and in that sense, yes it does fit in the University curriculum.

I wish I was one of Rick’s students.