Saturday, August 15, 2015

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

The Lydia E. Wilson 

It had been a silly way to end an otherwise fine Thanksgiving evening.

At the end of November 1995, Peter Matthiessen and his wife had invited their old friend Joe Fox, for dinner at their home on Long Island. Matthiessen and Fox, both sexagenarians at that time, had known each other for over thirty years, since 1965 in fact, when Fox had edited Matthiessen's first commercial success, "At play in the field of the Lords".

During his long career, Fox had collaborated on more works by Matthiessen as well as on novels by other famous writers like Truman Capote, Philip Roth and Ralph Ellison. Over the years he had become Random House' most prominent and respected editor.

The dinner conversation had started friendly enough with the two older men remembering books they worked on together, sharing tales on common friends and discussing future projects. As the evening ended and Matthiessen accompanied Fox back to his car, the discussion turned to a subject they had carefully avoided during the evening, the novel Far Tortuga, a nearly forgotten old book on which they had worked together 30 years earlier, relating the odyssey of a crew of turtle hunters sailing the waters around the Cayman islands in the Caribbean.

Within minutes the argument turned sour, with Matthiessen accusing Random House, and Fox in the same time, to have mishandled his book. As the altercation heated up, Fox furious, got in his car, slammed the door and drove away...

Matthiessen felt bad about their quarrel and gave Fox a telephone call to apologize as soon as he expected him home, but the discussion flared up again and the smoking horns where banged down with the matter between the old friends unsettled.

Tragically and totally unexpected, Joseph Fox died at his office in Manhattan a few days later, leaving no chance for a reconciliation between the two old men.

In the edition notice of Far Tortuga, Matthiessen had drawn attention to the intense and good collaboration with Fox, albeit with an enigmatic twist.

"Especially I wish to thank my editor, adversary and longtime friend Joe Fox" he wrote, "the most dedicated and impassioned line editor I ever worked with; we have been through hell together".

It looked like their friendship had not come entirely unscathed out of this hell.

What had happened with the novel Far Tortuga ?


 
The Far Tortuga of the title of Matthiessen's book is the name of a fictional cay on an equally fictional reef hidden somewhere in the Caribbean. It is a kind of mythical island, abounding with birds, fish and sea turtles ( Tortuga meaning turtle in Spanish ), a sea of plenty and easy fishing, a genuine Garden of Eden.

But a garden of Eden, is not how Archie Carr, a professor at the university of Florida and famous ecologist, described the Caribbean, in his awarded book " The Windward road in 1956. The green turtle and other marine species were vanishing fast, driven to extinction by fishermen who had by now modernized fishing boats at their disposal.

Himself, a passionate writer and researcher on wildlife, Matthiessen had been impressed by Carr's book and especially about an anecdote, relating one example of awesome turtle navigation.
A fisherman working on the Miskito Banks in Nicaragua had send five clearly marked live turtles to the Caymans with the schooner "The Lydia E.Wilson". Twelve days later, to his surprise, he caught the same marked turtles, in the same waters again. He assumed that the Wilson had sunk in the bad weather which had hit the coast of Nicaragua immediately after their departure. But the Wilson was a swift ship, she had outrun the storm and made a fast and problem free passage to Grand Cayman. The turtles had been unloaded and kept in a water pen until a storm a few days later had smashed these pens. The turtles had swam back to their feeding grounds, 350 miles away from Grand Cayman, in less than a few days...

After bringing the fate of the turtle to the attention of those who cared, Archi Carr had since kick started a plethora of programs and initiatives to safe these wonderful animals.

A decade after Carr's seminal book, looking for a subject for his next article for The New Yorker, that well-known magazine of reportage, Matthiessen decided that he too would write something about the endangered green turtles, the Chelonia Mydas.

In May 1965, Matthiessen flew for a first time to the capital of the Cayman islands. The romantic expectation that he was traveling to an undiscovered and mysterious destination was soon dissipated when he noticed that there were near daily flights from Florida to Georgetown and back. The reporter had not realized at that time that the Cayman islands were changing very fast into the fiscal and touristic destination that we now know.

After his check-in at the hotel on Six-Mile beach, Matthiessen went for a walk along the empty sandy stretch. In May, the tourist season was over and for the next months, the inhabitants of the Caymans, could only expect more heat, more humidity, more mosquitoes and even an occasional hurricane sweeping over their island. Confronted with the quick "modernization" of the island, the writer started to realize that there was some urgency in what he wanted to do. "

I was determined", he wrote down, "that I would sail on a turtle voyage before it was too late; the green turtle fishery and the turtle boats, the way the world was going, would soon pass, and their passing would end an epoch, on Grand Cayman and throughout the Caribbean."

At the bar, he struck up conversation with a Mr. and Mrs. Hatch, the American owners of the Beach Hotel. From them he learned that three vessels still sailed regularly to the Miskito Banks to catch turtles. One schooner was even operating under full sail like in the old days.

Its name : Lydia E. Wilson...



Matthiessen could not believe his luck. The Wilson had been the swift and elegant schooner which was reported in Archie Carr's book in the legendary anecdote illustrating the turtles navigational instincts ! If only he could board this boat on its next expedition !

Unfortunately the Wilson had left a few days earlier to the turtling grounds of Nicaragua and was not expected back for at least seven more weeks after which it would be laid up.

The Hatch couple accepted to intermediate between Matthiessen and a certain Captain Cadie, the Master of the Wilson, to arrange the reporter's joining of the crew for the fishing season of the next spring.

During the winter Matthiessen got in contact with Captain Cadie and informed the seaman that he would like to go along on a turtle voyage. It was the beginning of a frustratingly difficult negotiation with both parties unable, so it seemed, to understand each other’s desire. "Anything other than an ordinary turtle voyage was of no interest to me" said Matthiessen but Cadie understood the writer's request as "that I meant to charter his schooner at a princely fee and sail in it in solitary splendor, the length and breadth of the sunny Caribees".

Still, a semblance of a deal was struck, notwithstanding that Captain Cadie was according to the Hatches heavily disappointed for not getting a giant fee. Matthiessen would join the turtling expedition on the fifth of April 1966.

When Matthiessen arrived in Georgetown harbor, ready for his once in lifetime experience on the last sailing turtle schooner, the Wilson was nowhere to be seen. The Hatches were unaware of the whereabouts of the ship, but they were certain that Cadie had not left the island yet and that he was at his home in West Bay.

Matthiessen started to get double feelings about his deal. "After so many months of planning, I refused to believe that the whole enterprise might collapse at the last minute and early on the morning of April 5th I traveled up to West Bay in a rented car to try to get things straightened out."
After a few inquiries and a bit of driving around, Matthiessen found the captain's home and the two men finally met .

"Cadian Ebanks struck me as neither white nor Negro, and it suddenly came to me why this was so to a degree unmatched by any Caymanian I had seen, the captain looked like a full-blooded Indian".
When the tall white man presented himself to Cadie, the captain started to chuckle.

"Where is the Wilson" Matthiessen asked ? Cadie laughed even more.

"The Wilson", he said looking away, "was gone".

Matthiessen stood perplexed.

"Despite the fact that the Wilson had lain idle at Grand Cayman for three weeks, and although Cadie had no real reason to believe I was not coming, he had decided to send his schooner off to Nicaragua two days before my arrival. She was expected back, he said, sometime in May"
With all his plans shattered, Matthiessen could only comment that :" the perversity of this seemed so enormous that I did not bother to protest..."

"Next year ?" Matthiessen begged. Cadie, for whom the whole thing was a big joke, answered :

"Dah be best mahn, we will go next year"

Matthiessen sighed :"I had to laugh myself, tough I could just as readily have wept"

But things would get worse.



Flying from New York for a third time early in April 1967, Matthiessen was once more looking forward to the trip. As his plane prepared for landing, the apprehensions that had darkened his mood all along the flight, were soon dissipated by the expectation to sail on the most beautiful Caribbean waters in a traditional sailing ship.

It was any sailor's ultimate romantic dream.

When the author arrived at the quays of Georgetown harbor, he did not find the Wilson, or at least he did not recognize her immediately from the pictures he had seen.

In fact, Matthiessen had missed a sad and symbolic day earlier in February, when many islanders had flocked to the shore to see with real sorrow, the Wilson, the last sailing turtler leave port. She was bound to the Bay islands of Honduras to undergo a major overhaul.

With the advance of the New Yorker, Captain Cadie had his boat refitted with two old diesel engines and to make up for the loss of the living quarters beneath deck, he had desecrated the elegant flush deck of the schooner with a chicken coop that had to represent a crude and unpainted deck-house .
Worst of all, her tall spars had been cropped to half their height, and the stomp of the mainmast no longer carried sail.

A chance to witness something old and marvelous, a full rigged schooner, had been lost. Matthiessen would never see her under full sail.

Shocked, Matthiessen drifted to the nearest bar, Cadie, all smiles and happy greetings, right behind him. The writer tried to swallow his frustration and discouragement with a shot of rum but his anger did not subside. Anger with Cadie and especially anger with himself for having trusted the Captain.

The "rascality" of Captain Cadie was even for a seasoned Matthiessen too much. Defeated he sealed the bargain... on Cadies' terms. The captain could finally charge his "fot" fee.

Piracy, the writer would later note, was not quite dead on Grand Cayman.



The Wilson motored out of the Georgetown harbor on April, the 19th, 1967. The wind was blowing hard.

Because of the long negotiations, departure date had been delayed again for a few weeks, being now rather close to the upcoming hurricane season.

Once out at sea and the wind to their advantage, the crew hoisted her stunted foresails for the extra knot. Still Matthiessen could not delude himself that his dream of sailing on a genuine turtle schooner, an experience he had anticipated so much, had been shattered.

Frustrated he wrote : "In the wind, the engine noise was blown away astern, and staring up at the sky and sails and rigging, I could almost conjure up the voyages of other years. But there was no way to put aside the vibration under foot, or the diesel smell that came in eddies on the salt sea air"

Matthiessen knew about the sea and about boats. In 1954, after quitting a job for the CIA in Paris, he returned to Long Island to work there for three years as a commercial fisherman and as a captain of a charter fishing boat. He would reserve his writing for the bad weather days and long winter evenings. Matthiessen would turn his fishing experiences along the coast of Montauk into "Blue Meridian": The Search for the Great White Shark (1971), a book which would be a direct inspiration for Peter Benchley's Jaws.

The conditions on board of the Wilson were primitive and dangerous. Matthiessen was no softy and he had not expected much in comfort besides stale food and water, oppressive close quarters and the villainous stench of a turtle schooner under the tropic sun, but the daily reality of these fisherman was even harsher than he could imagine.

There was no clean drinking water aboard; the chemical taste of the diesel had seeped into the barrel of drinking water and the food that was prepared with that water had a chemical aftertaste.

Sleep was impossible in the cramped overheated cabin. There was no toilet or even a semblance of such a contraption and there was absolutely no privacy.

Because of his length and gasping for fresh air, Matthiessen decided to sleep on his inflatable mattress on deck, but if he was not doused by a squall or a green wave, he ran the risk to be bounced right off his mattress into the sea, by the heavy seas.

But Matthiessen was bothered by more than just the lack of comfort, the engine noise or the diesel smell. What really got at him was the complete absence of any security on board.

The boat was leaking, had no running lights, no fathom-meter, not even a horn, the radio did not work and there were no life jackets. Meals were prepared on board on an open wood stove in the galley and there were no fire extinguishers at all on board.

Worst of all was that the helmsman was sailing blind because of the house that had been build on deck. Matthiessen worried : "The wheel for instance is directly behind the deck-house and the helmsman stares straight ahead, not at the sea and stars, but into the bunks of his companions, who had clambered to their rest over his compass box".

No lookouts were posted. The protection of the vessel from collision with unseen objects, depended in the end only on the emptiness of the Western Caribbean and the helmsman questionable compass reading skills.

When Matthiessen overheard Captain Cadie saying to the helmsman to line up the stern-post with the North Star "to see if dot goddam Compass be any good", his heart sunk and he genuinely got worried.
Fortunately life on board and the fishing itself gave Matthiessen the necessary distractions.
During the idle hours on board the fishermen would speak between themselves, as they must have done for centuries. They recalled stories about old turtlers and turtleboats, ships and captains, great storms and exceptional catches, lost schooners and abandoned and starving Rangers, Loggerheads and Hawksbill turtles, aggressive barracudas and poisonous jacks.

They gossiped about their Captain and at night they would scare each other with Obeah witchcraft stories.

Especially painful for Matthiessen was when they remembered the Wilson as she once was. Build on a Nova Scotia design, inspired by the lines of famous schooners,

"...she were a pretty little vessel mahn... every frame in her mahogany...and a fine sea boat...thirteen mile an hour... She were like a wild horse mahn..."

The catching of the turtles was exhilarating. Matthiessen witnessed the skills of the fisherman, their fearless execution of their duty, their heroic steering of their small catboats in fierce weather. But once the animals were brought aboard lying on their back in cots, there flippers pierced with a hot iron and bound together, Matthiessen, the naturalist, would regret the catching and killing of the beautiful endangered animals.

The actual fishing took place on the Miskito banks which are located in the territorial waters of Nicaragua. Foreign boats, including the turtlers, had to register at a custom house before fishing and then pay taxes prior to receive clearance for leaving the Nicaraguan waters.

For the Caiman turtle schooners this was a huge complication because the custom offices were well inland, reachable only by rowing catboats up shallow rivers, miles into the jungle. Matthiessen accompanied Captain Cadie twice without them reaching their destination. They were loosing precious time instead of fishing.

By then, the writer had had his fill of the Wilson and Captain Cadie.

The conditions on board of the unsafe ship and the unseasonal weather were wreaking havoc on the adventurer's nerves and he decided to leave ship at the next custom office they would reach. He would not be part of the crew on the return voyage.

As Matthiessen, dropped of on the quay, watched the bitching and bickering crew prepare for heaving anchor and sail away, he realized that, rather than pitying himself about the missed opportunity to sail with the last of the turtle schooners, he should write down what seemed to be a key-moment in the history of traditional turtle fishing in the Caribbean. The awful situation on board, the danger, the maimed boat and the stories of the fisherman, set in a broader perspective bore all the signs of a disappearing world.

Matthiessen had more than just field notes for an article. In his mind an idea for a novel started to take shape.



In the following weeks, Matthiessen turned his field notes into a rather stale article and flew back to New York to submit the manuscript.

Matthiessen, his senses still frayed by emotions and his mind overflowing with strong impressions, was not exactly proud of his hastily scribbled "fact-piece". He was especially embarrassed about the disparity of the amount of money spent and the poor work he delivered.

The author had in the past had his share of "fights with editors over cuts and edits, and no pay, and whatever..." and he braced himself for the worst when he entered the office of William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker.

Barely seated he said :

"Mr. Shawn, I was so powerfully affected by a feeling over there...I'll give you your fact piece, and I think it's going to be OK... and I just want to tell you, since you spent a lot of money on my expenses, I'm going to save my best stuff for a novel."

Matthiessen later recalled his emotion as Shawn without any hesitation at all answered :

"Mr. Matthiessen, you do what's best for your work!"

The writer recalled "...tears just arced out of my eyes. I was so moved and touched by that".

The article was accepted and appeared in the October 28, (1967 )issue.

The abstract of "To The Miskito Bank" read :

...about a visit to Grand Cayman, remote island in the Caribbean & a turtle fishing Voyage to the Miskito Bank on the ship Lydia E. Wilson, whose captain was Cadian E. Banks, a full-blooded Indian. The green turtle is a vanishing species, one of the last great reptile relics from the age of the dinosaurs, and an ocean wanderer whose powers of navigation are awesome. There is only a remnant turtle fleet today.

Matthiessen started to work on his book and would indeed turn the "best stuff" into a masterpiece, but it would take him nearly 10 years to tell the story. It took him so long because he wanted to transpose the raw emotions and impressions, as he experienced them, straight and unadorned on to paper. He knew he could not rely on classic prose techniques to achieve this. He needed something radically new...

"Far Tortuga," would be radical in nearly every way.



The article in the New Yorker is a boon for the reviewer of Far Tortuga. More than anything, it allows to appreciate the craft of the writer turning his rough field notes into crisp fiction. In the case of a writer like Peter Matthiessen especially, this comes in very handy, for he was the master in fusing fact and fiction. Matthiessen remains, let's not forget it, the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction writing. Some even credit him for inventing the nonfiction novel all by himself.
Period.

Indeed in the early sixties, the author who had joined Michael Rockefeller to New Guinea on his ill-fated Harvard-Peabody expedition, had written a book "Under the Mountain Wall" (1962), a factual rendering of tribal warfare but one that read like a novel rather than a sociological document. Truman Capote would later acknowledge that Matthiessen's writing style had profoundly impressed him and that he made it his own for his groundbreaking "In cold blood"

Matthiessen did not need to fictionalize his notes for Far Tortuga a lot.

The conditions on the boat had been adventurous enough. He stayed away from all romantic embellishment and decided to keep the maimed schooner as she was, with chicken coop and shortened mast. Still, not willing to play a part in the further desecration of the Lydia E. Wilson legend, he renamed her "Lillias Eden".

He kept the unseasonal rough weather too, repetitively alluding to it in the pages and thus creating throughout the novel a worrying mood, a constant unrest.

Matthiessen had now also the opportunity to settle scores with his rascal-captain. Captain Cadian Ebanks is rechristened as Captain Raib Avers. Matthiessen gave him the same Indian features, with the unsettling combination of laughing eyes and cruel mouth. The fictional Avers, while still described as an experienced fisherman and a keen boat-handler, makes navigational errors, is a pathetic boaster, a poor leader of men and under suspicion by the turtling community of theft, arson and even murder.

A lot of the gossip and stories swapped between the men, we imagine, are left unchanged. So is the fishing and the sailing, the anchoring and the dangerous navigation between the coral reefs. The turtle's navigational anecdote from Archi Carr's book is recalled, only slightly changed, by one of the men. The crew of the Wilson, in the words of their own captain : two drunkards, one thief and five idiots, are they too transplanted, barely changed into the novel. Just as Ebanks' son was on board of the Wilson, so is Captain Raib' s. This is more than a detail.

Turtling is a family business. A lot of fishermen are related to each other as is clear from the few surnames going around. Another crew member, Will Parchments, is searching for his runaway boy. While the turtlers constitute a large family, it is also clear that In Matthiessen's rendition at least, the relations within these families are disturbed.

One man jokes that in the past people didn't know their Papa, but nowadays they don't know their Mama either...

Avers has no time for his 16 year old boy who wants to become a turtler, barely even remembering his name. Parchments' son is not willing to learn from his eager father. The age - old tradition of passing experience and knowledge from one generation to the next is in danger. Modern technology makes experience obsolete, or so we are led to conclude from a strong symbolic scene in which Raib is finally teaching his boy some ancient wisdom of how to predict weather, only to be interrupted by the radio with a clear and concise US weather forecast.

Well into the story, as the reader has made the harsh conditions and the unholy weather his own, fiction sets in.

On a desolate cay, littered with filth, dead turtles and dead-drunk fishermen, Raib meets Captain Desmond, his illegitimate half-brother. They are no friends. On board Of Desmond's boat, insolently named "Davy Jones", a boat even more ridiculous than the Lilias Eden, Raib find his 80 year old father immobilized and stunned by a stroke. Desmond has embarked the old man as a cheap pilot, but the tough conditions on board have brought the old sea-dog down. After an altercation with his brother and to care for him in his last moments, Raib transfers his father on Board of the Lilias. On the crowded schooner, he has to attach him, so as not to lose him overboard, on a chair against the mast.

There are now three generations on board of the Eden. Nearly unnoticed, Matthiessen has transformed the narrative of the individual fishermen into a parable of a destiny of a species, the turtle fishermen, who live from the turtle and whose fate is intimately bound to their prey.

As they fail to find enough turtles, Raib and his crew, getting increasingly desperate, sail from one depleted fishing spot to another. On top of the strong wind and with a crew whose cohesiveness starts to fall apart and openly revolts, other worrying encounters threaten the schooner.

One possible threat comes in the shape of starving rangers. These are fisherman that are dropped off on small islands and cays with water and food for only a few days. The idea is that a fishing vessel can extend his fishing zone by dropping fishermen off on isolated cays and then pick them up before food and water are consumed. It is a risky business of course as the fisherman are totally unprotected and at the mercy of the elements with these island but a few feet above sea-level. We also understand from the gossip of the men that a few captains have a bad reputation from leaving their crew behind or get them back on board long after the agreed date.

The Eden crew is therefore very careful when closing land, for they don't know in what state of desperate anger these rangers might be.

As time runs out, Captain Raib finally decides on a last gamble. He will try to find the lost and maybe legendary Far Tortuga Cay on Mysteriosa reef, a paradisaical place, on which they say, the green turtles still abound...



While Matthiessen initially sulked because he lost his chance to experience some marvelous sailing on the Wilson, he soon realized that what he had experienced was part of something much bigger.
He had witnessed the vanishing of a world and it was that, which he set himself to describe. With the last turtles, the turtling industry and the fishermen would soon disappear, like so many other traditional communities who lived from endangered natural resources. And so the book gets the allure of a huge metaphor for mankind, the ultimate predator, who endangers himself by cutting and killing his own habitat into a wasteland.

During their Odyssey, the crew of the Lillias Eden encounters other turtlers and rangers who by their actions or situations underscore this major theme of the book. The people they meet on these small sandy outposts for instance are all low down, dirt poor drunks, fornicating on the beach, in the sand, like the very animals they prey upon ; they are a degenerate breed. The turtles they catch are smaller and slower, they too a depleted and degenerated remnant of a once mythical beast. The captains are unheroic and vile, their crews incompetent and stunned. The communion between navigator and his environment is effectively obstructed by such things as a decrepit chicken coop. Even the schooner, the once famous and beautiful descendant of the Nova Scotia designs, is turned into a bizarre hybrid, a mongrel of engine and sail.

It is the last gasp, the last twitch of a bygone world we witness through Matthiessen's prose. The last act unfolds in a post-delugian world, where the land is rising from the deep, morphing into dangerous shoals, treacherous reefs and hidden cays. Sea-Monsters and Sea - Men, Predator and Prey die simultaneously on a lee shore of an indifferent world.

At this moment of change and transition, the sailors continuously mourn a good heroic Ancient time and mock and fear the Modern time. They try to make sense of what is happening to them, trying to translate signs both natural and irrational to read their future. They fight back pathetically. Their attempts to adapt to a changing environment, are botched and ill-advised. The propeller shaft of the new installed engine is twisted, the recently acquired radio is not emitting, their chronometer running out of time.

That there are other options beside turtling is clear to but a few. Most are stuck in the paradigm of the fisherman's existence, the ziggy-zaggy logic of a sailing captain.

It is a cruel paradox that the changes to modernize the boat are the cause that the schooner fails in the end to escape the reefs. Deeper in the water because of the two engines and less heeling without it's full-length masts, the Lilias Eden, maybe misses a few inches of depth when she tries to escape to deeper water...



An alternative reading is possible, albeit with a same conclusion, when the reader tries to understand the odyssea of the Eden through the mental framework of the poor illiterate men on board.

Obeah, the Caribbean voodoo variant, is omnipresent in the words and saying of the sailors. The supernatural, for them, is another way to try to understand and explain their world. To make us perceive and experience the sailor's mind frame, Matthiessen has introduced a lot of superstition in his story.

In a first reading, when we have not made the turtlers's mind our own, we miss most of it, but in subsequent readings and once the reader knows the outcome of the Eden's Odyssey, one starts to notice that from the first pages everything is hinted at, announced, predicted.

Far Tortuga is full of premonitions as how the story will develop and end. But this time, as we perceive it through the sailor's logic, it is a completely different story.

Wodie, one of the crew members is thought to be an Obeah worker himself, a malevolent ghost, a duppy, full of fufu.

Such a real person was also on board of the Wilson. Matthiessen remembered him as "a chief authority on Obeah", who "spoke knowingly of grave-sleeping, tree knots, human hair, and the book of Moses". "Mahn" he was quoted to say, "you gots to kill five or six people just learnin'".

Raib interferes most of the time when Wodie starts scaring the crew. There is no place for fufu on a sailing vessel in dangerous waters. But by calling him a Jonah, Matthiessen gives the reader a clue.

Wodie, like his Biblical namesake, is in fact a stowaway, hidden by the Captain who is in short of crew. Wodie is not looking for a job as turtler, he is hiding from a posse and the turtling expedition has given him a chance to escape the island unseen. He is on suspicion for murdering a child.

Like in the Scripture, the stowaway might be the real cause of the unseasonal strong winds. Could it be the wrath of God for the killing of an innocent being ? It is the ill luck of the Wilson and the crew that they fail to notice this relation and throw the culprit overboard like the original Jonah.

Twice a white shape is spotted under water in the neighborhood of the schooner. Raib explains his scared crew that it is a dead whale floating between two waters but the men are not sure. Why do the sharks keep a distance if it is only a dead baleen ? And how can it follow the boat, if it is dead ? As the crew of the Wilson do not sacrifice the man, the wind hardens and the turtles keep staying away.

The fate of the ship is now linked to the murderer.

A lone ghost on a blue boat announces the end. As fate overtakes Wodie's flight, the crew is bound to die with him. Only when that happens, is the remaining last crew member freed from the curse.

Finally, Far Tortuga's ecological message, that man, the ultimate predator will not survive the changing or disappearance of the world he preys upon is strongly endorsed by a Biblical warning that we can't escape our fate if we sacrifice the innocence of the World.



The story however is not the only thing that makes this book stand out. There is also, and even more impressive, the experimental writing.

The stark quality of the voyage on the Wilson, everything worn bare by wind and sea -- the reefs, the faded schooner, the turtle men themselves -- "everything so pared down"... had moved Matthiessen to the core. He was "struck by the simplicity of those lives..."

It was that "bareness" and "simplicity" that he wanted to recreate in his prose, but to do that, he would need a new way of writing; a radical new way of writing.

"I was feeling my way toward a spare form," Matthiessen said in an interview "with more air around the words, more space: I wanted the descriptions to be very clear and flat, to find such poetry as they might attain in their very directness and simplicity"

And he concluded:

"I knew that rich metaphoric prose would not work here. The prose had to reflect the spareness of those lives. I began by throwing out most of the furniture of novel writing, from simile, metaphors and complex sentences right down to the he said and the she said".

All these adornments, he feared, would bring the author into the novel, and Matthiessen was trying to stay out of it.

The author started to cut away all intrusive literary ornaments, all that he thought superfluous : the elaborate descriptions, the quotations, the attributions,disdaining most literary conventions. In his words, he "scrubbed the paint to the bare wood".

As he avoided all authorial intrusion, the novel offered a minimum of exposition or explanation and took the allure more of a screenplay than of traditional prose text.

First challenges arised : If the voices were unattributed, how would the reader identify the different speakers ?

In stead of presenting each protagonist with what normally be a short character drawing, Matthiessen gave his readers the ship's manifest with each crewman's name, kin, and particulars carefully written down.

To identify each sailor with his speech, Matthiessen gave each one of the crew their own idiosyncrasies of speech and small obsession. Each man is singled out by what Matthiessen called a life-song, an expression that each one repeats over and over again. It is a refrain of their bewilderment, a continuously repeated mantra of who the are and what they do.

One for instance, whom the crew calls Speedy, reminds everybody all the time that he is fast, fast in learning and thinking, but fast with a knife too. Another sailor is continuously bickering that he is poorly fed, poorly paid while he holds Merchantman papers. His companion has a mouth full of the unions and so on.

And it works. In the first few pages, when we too are new on board, and we don't know the individuals yet, all these voices are a little bewildering. But it doesn't matter. Once you start to know them and start to care,you easily recognize each voice.

Matthiessen continued to simplify his text : instead of a description of the Wilson, we get a technical drawing of the ship and a deck plan of the vessel which serves as sort of a stage set.

Instead of a description of the Caymans and the surrounding islands, we get on the board-papers of the book a a very detailed nautical map of the reefs and shoals, which emerge dangerously between the island of Grand Cayman and the Spanish Main. It helps to orientate yourself while reading. Any blue water reader following the course of the Wilson, will appreciate the help.

Peculiarities of harbor and customs are explained with extracts of pilot-books or sailors direction.

Time on board is deduced by who stands on watch.

When darkness sets in or at daybreak, descriptive text is replaced by a navigational symbol of a rising and a setting sun and a few pages contain only a horizontal line or a single speck, the star Polaris watching over an empty sea.

The clean illustrations of Kenneth Miyamoto suggest sunrises, sunsets, night skies, storms and ocean horizons. They complement the text perfectly and serve as dividers between chapters and sub chapters.

The reader therefore should try to get the original hard-copy edition of Far Tortuga. Later pocket editions cannot sufficiently represent Matthiessen's artistic intentions. 



Another distinctive feature of Far Tortuga is the use of the colloquial and the vernacular. It is, together with the spare prose, a second key technique for Matthiessen to recreate the Turtler's adventure.

The writer was fascinated by this "Chaucerian language, unchanged for centuries". He decided to learn the language and "bring that whole thing under control". "When I first went to Grand Cayman, I could scarcely understand a thing those men were saying. I couldn't write the book I wanted until I spoke that archaic tongue and heard it truly--until I could think and reason in it--"

The unwelcome circumstances of his research helped him to get acquainted, if not with the rascality of Captain Cadie, at least with the language he and his crew spoke. The advantage of the long "parlay" over the schooner and the cost, was that Matthiessen got used to the lingo, grasped it's sounds and inflections and started to understand what the crew was gibbering between themselves. He did not have to record it. Matthiessen had a fine ear for sounds and remembered it well.

The dialogs In Far Tortuga, are written in a Caribbean lingo. Any reader can manage, evoking the Carribean sounds and inflections, by giving their best "Bob Marley –imitation". Once one gets the hang of it, the novel reads easily.

The original title of Matthiessen's book was "Fool Day" like in April's fool day, a comment by one of the sailors that the abnormal strong wind in this April moment is foolish.

"April Fool Day, mon.

"Dis is the worst April dat I remember ! De worst one ! I never see such April, with dis wind gone crazy every day.

Take a fool to be a tutler!

April Fool Day, mon".

Matthiessen's application to get the sentences right have in a way made this novel a document of a lost vernacular, not unlike what he succeeded to do with the red neck lingo in his later book Shadow Country.

Matthiessen never mentioned any influence and pointed out that his innovations had emerged from the writing process itself, because the traditional novelistic forms, simply were not working. The technique of avoidance of authorial intrusion however and the use of the vernacular in a single book, reminds us of William Faulkner and especially of his book "As I lay dying".

I am not insinuating that Faulkner influenced Matthiessen, but we can at least assume that Matthiessen knew about Faulkner's work, as the southern author had been interviewed in 1956 by Jean Stein in Matthiessen's "own" Paris Review. ( Matthiessen was co-founder of that magazine )

Faulkner had solved the confusion around the attribution of voices by giving every one of his characters their own chapter. There was no confusion possible even though that in the speeches of Faulkner's characters there were also "interior monologues" and "stream of consciousness" lines.

Not so with Matthiessen, who kept to the spoken word and in that sense Far Tortuga is both easier and more complicated than the Faulkner's book.



Far Tortuga was not only made up of dialog ofcourse. Scenes and situations needed to be described. Matthiessen challenged himself to the utmost to simplify his descriptive writing too. He found help in the Zen training he was undergoing in the period he was writing Far Tortuga.

"The elimination of the ego is a standard part of Zen training, as is the admonition to keep things simple and free of adornment", he said.

In later interviews he confessed that :

"More than anything I've done, perhaps, Far Tortuga was influenced by Zen training. The grit and feel of this present moment, moment after moment, opening out into the oceanic wonder of the sea and sky. When you fix each moment in all its astonishing detail, see its miracle in a fresh light, no similes, no images are needed. They become "literary," superfluous. Aesthetic clutter".

Zen contributed to his need for spareness, to present things with a minimum of literary adornment. It helped him to see his scenes in a fresh way, "to dissolve the screens that build up from early childhood and obscure one's perceptions". In Far Tortuga Matthiessen presented things directly, let objects and actions speak for themselves, capture it's immediacy, so that the reader would not have to perceive things through the minds of the characters.

His brief descriptive passages sometimes read like a haiku; Here is the text of one full page describing a catboat closing in on land:

the shadow of the coast
sun shaft and silence
old morning sea
bird cry and thundering
black beach

Matthiessen inserted dozens of such details in his text, as clear and simple as a haiku, but when thought over, saying more than a thousand words.

Somewhere in the book for instance there is a short description of a puddle of water that vibrates on the lid of a drum. Nothing more than that is said, but as any sailor knows, a puddle of vibrating water on a sailing boat means that the engine is running. A detail which caught the eye of an irritated writer and which he transfers to his book to remind us that the Wilson has been spoiled with an engine..

There is some graphic playfullness too that enlivens the text. Words are blown over de pages by the wind or shatter like scared fush. Oftentimes words are omitted in spoken sentences as if the wind has covered the shards of the speeches between the men...

All fascinating finds but Matthiessen wanted to push his craft even a bit further...


"I wanted to experiment with silences and space--I mean quite literally the extent of white space on the page between incidents, monologues, songs, wind gusts, squabbles, the shudder of the hull in the rough weather, everything".

In other words, the author wanted blank pages in his book...he explains his intentions with an analogy from a classic Japanese art form:"when drawing a bamboo stalk in Sumi painting, the brush moves upward, leaving a white space between strokes to suggest the nodes of the bamboo that separate sections of the stem; it's the emptiness that brings the rest to life.

"Similarly, the emptiness and silence represented by white spaces in his book would set up reverberations in what is written". It would be like an interval in a composition by Stravinsky, a set up of a tension of expectancy.

It is a this point I guess, that Matthiessen and his editor started to disagree. The author seemed less convinced of the result he achieved :

"...eventually, I attempted using white space to achieve resonance, to make the reader receive things intuitively, hear the silence in the wind, for instance, that is a constant presence in the book,"but I neglected to anticipate the mechanical problems of these spaces in terms of the printed page, and in the end I had to compromise on the white-space idea.

There should not have been mechanical problems. In the seventies, publishers and printers were quite capable of printing a book in any shape the artist desired. But Fox and Random House' flexibility had reached their limits.

Matthiessen gave in, reluctantly I assume. In the interviews he later gave, there would be no finger pointing or accusations but when listening carefully to Matthiessen's answers when interviewed, one senses a frustration of a job not accomplished.

He said for instance: "In the end, the dance of the white spaces was mostly lost". "I had an instinct, the whisper of an idea that I failed to work through in my head, and by the time I did so, it was too late. All those white spaces--Stravinsky's intervals--were indicated in the manuscript, but of course in the actual printed text, my precious spaces came out truncated, half at the bottom of one page, for example, and half at the top of the next".

It was sloppy work, Random House delivered.

He said as a conclusion :

"Next time I'll draw the whole novel onto the blank pages of an artist's sketch book so that white spaces and juxtapositions will be just the way I want."

The book in the end did not come out as Matthiessen intended. In his perception he failed and thought that maybe his editor jeopardized what could have been an even bolder result.

Different interviewers inquired how the editor had reacted on Matthiessen's experimental work.
In the Paris Review, he told how Fox was pretty suspicious at first, assuring Matthiessen the book wouldn't sell, but that after he'd spent some times with it, Far Tortuga began to get to Fox too.

Matthiessen sounded cocksure about his experimental writing : "I think serious writers stretch themselves, however subtly, and stretch their good readers, too--otherwise, why do it? There are many too many formulaic novels published already. In paying attention to what publishers or readers may expect of us, one is no longer an artist but an artisan, however gifted. To keep that necessary edge, the writer must never feel quite comfortable, and never satisfied. So many good novels could have benefited from another draft. I would work all the way to the printer's, if they let me".

Proud words indeed.

In later interviews, his tone got harsher, more accusing. To Rick Bass from the Believer, he told how Fox wanted him to clean his writing up, take out a lot of the dialect and hallucinogenic sequences, make it more accessible, to change everything that was avant-garde.

Matthiessen said that refused; that he had a vision and that he defended his work.

When asked which single piece of advice he would give to a beginning writer, he said "You've got to be ferocious, committed. You've got to be willing to be completely obsessed, and for a long time."

Far Tortuga however opens with an introductory note on the Cayman islands and its history. Without doubt, a blatant and bad concession to his editor. Matthiessen did not even get the chance to open his experimental book with his experimental writing.

In the end, Matthiessen confessed that he was not satisfied with his work. While his editor gave him a lot of leeway and freedom to create his book, he still clang to creative conventions which his author could not trespass.

And it was that, that Matthiessen still held against his old friend after so many years.

The original draft, the corrected typescript,the carbon typescript, the tentative copy and the setting copy, are all safely kept at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin Texas, waiting for a braver editor. With the exception of some deteriorating tape and glue, minor water and mold damage, the collection is in good condition.

One manuscript however is damaged by what appears to be a bullet penetration...



Far Tortuga had a very mixed reception.

The poet James Dickey for instance felt that Far Tortuga was a turning point in the evolution of the novel and Pynchon found it "a masterfully spun yarn, a little otherworldly, a dreamlike momentum . . . " He especially liked the music and the strong haunting visuals as well as Matthiessen's deep declaration of love for the planet. Robert Stone, reviewing Far Tortuga in The Times, said that "the author's joy in the dialect 
was so infectious and the author's ear for it so sure, that the novel's music came to permeate the reader's consciousness as thoroughly as the wonderful descriptions."

Other readers hated it. The Village Voice most notoriously hacked the novel to pieces in a fierce review of no less than four pages!

But what had disappointed Matthiessen most, was Fox and Random House's stance towards his experimental book.

In a last interview, a few days before his death, forty years after the publication of far Tortuga, when asked which of his novels was his favorite, Matthiessen didn't hesitate a moment before answering : Far Tortuga. He still sounded disappointed though, when he told how people didn't get it and how he had argued with Joe Fox on that Thanksgiving evening because Fox never had fully supported his book.

Matthiessen's interviewer noticed that even after 40 years since it's publications, the writer's feelings about his Caribbean book were still intense. When he suggested that "Far Tortuga" must have been a highlight of the writer’s career, Matthiessen, for all of the ego-less-ness of the book's authorial style, was quick to correct : "Well, no. 'Far Tortuga' got no awards, whatsoever."

That the book got no awards from a larger public confirmed Matthiessen that it was a failure; but it could as well be a mark of an exceptional innovative achievement .

It is a rare book that combines a good sea yarn with exciting experimental writing, but Peter Matthiessen did it and impressively so with "Far Tortuga", a book which by the time you read this, I have listed with my all-time favorites. This late modernist work is quite simply a forgotten masterpiece.

That Far Tortuga failed to become a huge commercial success should not come as a surprise. It is after all a sailor's book, it cannot appeal to everybody. For all his experimentation and fine tinkering with the text, Matthiessen succeeded to write the single best book I ever read that recreates a sailor's world at sea. No other writer has done better, before him or since.

Far Tortuga succeeds with sailors because it evokes elements that appeal to seamen: the hues of color of the sea, the wind, the squalls, the movement of the boat, the celestial bodies, the aquatic life, the horizon and the waves. Each exquisite detail, be it a color, a word position on the page, a spotting of a bird or an imagining of fish, each detail opens up in a scattering of understanding and emotions.

The unique achievement lays in his visceral recreation of a believable world of sea, wind and boats. Believable, I should add, not only for the general reader but especially for his peers, in such a way that when one reads far Tortuga, one hides from the heat, protects one eyes from the glare of the sun, ducks when a wave hits the boat, worry about the change of the sea colors, and experience this throbbing anxiousness : “Will a wild wind hit me when I am out at sea ?”

Matthiessen could only convey to the reader what he had experienced on board of the Wilson, because he dared to leave the safe deep waters of traditional prose and enter a creative space of dangerous reefs and shoals of prose, poetry and graphic innovation.

Matthiessen like his Captain Raib did not come completely unscathed out of his voyage, but still he could smile that :

“It was the most exhilarating book I've ever written"

And I could add

That it is one of the most exhilarating I ever read.




1 comment:

  1. One of my all-time favorites as well. Read it twice, with some 30 years in between; each time took me 70 pages to lock-in. Appreciated your articulation of characters and events. Awesome treatment of an awesome book.

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