The Far Side of the World
May 30, 2018 11:29 AM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the tenth book, the little old sixth-rate Surprise is given a final mission before the knacker's yard: to go from Gibraltar to the far side of the world, if need be, past the logistic reach of the disgusting British Empire, to protect her whalers from the American Norfolk, thirty-two. A journey where seas are vast, spars are sparse, Colnett's book and midshipman apply, Jonahs meet their finners, and specktioneers cry; where the beautiful curve of a stern window is admired and leaned out of. It occurs that the Surprise is mutilated, Jack's loins are imperiled, Stephen adds an addiction; Horns are got around, Palmer's Paradise sought while Old Sodbury's found, and HERMIONES DIE.

    ‘Oh, as far as unsexing is concerned, who are we to throw stones? With us any girl that cannot find a husband is unsexed. If she is very high or very low she may go her own way, with the risks entailed therein, but otherwise she must either have no sex or be disgraced. She burns, and she is ridiculed for burning. To say nothing of male tyranny – a wife or a daughter being a mere chattel in most codes of law or custom – and brute force – to say nothing of that, hundreds of thousands of girls are in effect unsexed every generation: and barren women are as much despised as eunuchs. I do assure you, Martin, that if I were a woman I should march out with a flaming torch and a sword; I should emasculate right and left. As for the women of the pahi, I am astonished at their moderation.’
    ‘You would have been still more astonished at the force of their blows.’
• Jo Walton's re-read. She loves it and supposes a Padeeniverse. She strongly approves of the movie.
• Cape Horn has an interesting monument.
• For more links see the post for The Surgeon's Mate.

Letters from Home: Sophie doesn't figure much in this one; Jack's mind is at peace for most of this book. Stephen's is not at all. The poison pen scratches at him, and Diana writes him to say she KNOWS Stephen wouldn't be having a PUBLIC affair with any red-headed Italian ladies, RIGHT? Stephen is kind of slowly losing his shit here w/r/t Diana. When he sinks into a deep cold fury at Jack for not letting him walk across the island with Martin, he thinks about the times Jack has wasted time, when he's been known to linger in port for a wench before -- that wench being Diana, which Stephen doesn't seem to consciously acknowledge. There are some minor barbs, too, the word 'liar' being tossed around a little too casually, little flashes of the vile Polychrest!

Pullings comes aboard as a volunteer, takes back the recaptured packet Danaë, hopes that'll show some zeal. Mowett says a poem or too and is generally extremely competent, especially off screen. Bonden goes about doing his many jobs, helps salt his cousin's lobscouse. Mention is made of having been taught to read by Stephen. Joe Plaice overcommits to producing a "rich man's lobscouse", viscous salty gobbets covered an inch deep in slush. Falls down a ladder, fracturing his skull on a ring-bolt, and gets trepanned, which destroys Higgins' clout with the crew.

Killick has an acid, housewifey face and a shrill, indignant, shrewish voice, a cross between that of a much-tried long-soured nursemaid and of an uncommonly rough tarpaulin-hatted tobacco-chewing foremast-hand. Terrifies the new cook so much that he deserts. Ignores Jack's summons:
    ... for Killick was nattering with a friend on the other side of the bulkhead, and being an obstinate, stupid man he neither would nor could attend to two things at once – he had started an anecdote about an Irish member of the afterguard called Teague Reilly and the anecdote he was going to finish.
    ‘ “Well, Killick,” he say to me in that old-fashioned way they have of speaking in the Cove of Cork, scarcely like Christians at all, poor souls, “you being only a bleeding Proddy, you won’t understand what I mean, but as soon as we touch at the Grand Canary I am going straight up to the Franciscans and I am going to make a good confession.” “Why so, mate?” says I. “Because why?” says he …’
    ‘Killick,’ cried Jack in a voice that made the bulkhead vibrate.
    Killick waved his hand impatiently towards the cabin and went on, ‘ “Because why?” says he, “Because the barky’s shipped a Jonah for one, and a parson for two, and for three the bosun’s girl put a cat in his cabin; which crowns all.” ’
    The third summons Killick obeyed, bursting into the cabin with the air of one who had just run from the forecastle.
Martin loves the birding atop Gibraltar, is about the only parson Jack can stand ("He may be holier than thou, but he never thrusts it down thy throat; and I have never seen him drunk."), comes aboard to tutor the squeakers, revealed to have apprenticed among London booksellers, is bit by an owl-faced night-ape in Penedo, has the hots for a gal, writes a horrible proposal letter whose prose is figuratively literally stilted and forces Stephen to read it, gets a shark tooth in the butt and an arrow in the calf, swears off women.

Mr. Allen comes aboard as master, sailed with Colnett with whom most officers that attend to their profession are tolerably well acqainted, shows a "repulsive reserve" at first that is never quite explained. Instantly wins forgiveness from Jack for being good at his job and stays that way. Refers to Cadmus (he's guilty about being a whaler perhaps?) but Jack thinks he's talking about something sexual and refers him to Buchan’s Domestic Medicine. Allen delivers a pleasant account of whalers' work, is a big name in Penedo. Runs the Acapulco into Valparaiso, kind of fades in last part of the book as Hogg takes over as the expert.

Hollom, whom Jack pegs as a Jonah instantly, but comes to life when given any food at all. Seduces Mrs. Horner, the gunner's nineteen year old wife, whose shape Jack does not find to be in accordance with the customs of the service. Mr. Horner murders them, hangs himself, is let die by Stephen, is dumped unceremoniously over the side by Gibraltar lunatics.

- Wm Honey, master's mate and acting third lieutenant, rejoins the ship after the conclusion of the previous book, has a fateful Spanish guitar, jumps off the boat to hug Jack.
- Calamy, midshipman, can't quite stand up to Maturin.
- Williamson, midshipman, follows Jack till his feet are blistered and bloody,
- Warley vanishes instantly into horrible sea when westing around the Horn.
- Blakeney swallows a gob-stopper.
- Howard of the Marines fuckin' murders every animal he sees, including the baby of a "sea-elephant" that haunts the ship. Presents Stephen a hat full of strangled birds with a smirk.
- Higgins the tooth-puller, quack, and abortionist; given a Jonah's lift.
- "Shove off, Macbeth".
- Hogg the specktioneer, hilariously democratic, knows secret islands and can read their geography by the color of the reflections they make in the clouds above them.
- Davis breaks an ore rowing, is going to be in a prize fight for Stephen's benefit; we discover Jack has always loved boxing.
- Manu the rescuer and casual sharkslayer, undraped Athene-like; is on the cover of the first edition.

Notable animals:
- The censorious farting sloth/doormat in Penedo.
- The owl-faced night-ape whom Martin tries to cuddle.
- Scourge, the bosun's (Hollar's) cat, "a lean young cat of indifferent character, somewhat whorish", soon abandons all its pretty caressing ways and gives insolent stares; nearly murder's Stephen, dances with St. Elmo's fire, joins the inspection.
- Aspasia, the gunroom goat, immortal, eats Stephen's butts and seeks his protection from Galápogosian finches.
- Stephen's pahi pig in a basket.
- The flightless rail atop Old Sodsbury's island, much sought for, waddles into a bush at Jack's wheezing approach. Stephen "saw the flightless rail walk out on to a bare patch of ground, stretch one useless though decorative wing, scratch itself, yawn, and eventually pass on, allowing him to breathe again."
    He turned it over in his mind – the ways of dealing with a palm-trunk, and how to give it some kind of stability with an outrigger in the South Seas fashion. Almost wholly useless reflection, but even so better than the piercing, sterile, pointless regrets that had tormented him for the last few hours, regrets about leaving Sophie surrounded with law-suits, regrets for not having managed things more cleverly, bitter regret at having to leave life behind and all those he loved.
    The earth turned and the ocean with it; the water in which they swam turned towards the sun.
posted by fleacircus (16 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was surprised by just how different the book is from the movie. And as a book, it's pretty weird - more of a series of loosely connected events than the previous ones.

The Macbeth/Macduff thing destroyed me. It's just so sublimely silly.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:19 PM on May 30, 2018

yeah, the movie picks bits and pieces from a number of books and is just like THIS ALL HAPPENED AT ONCE and that's fine but then seeing all the bits and pieces in their native environment later on is v odd.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:06 PM on May 30, 2018

I'm glad they left the whole Hollom-Horner-Rose thing out of the film, though. Bleh.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:08 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

It is weird, though I think a journey around the world would be weird and episodic. The movie has a Jonah segment too that plays out and is done and over. Still, I am not sure if there's been anything since James Dillon and the Diana drama in the first two books, as a narrative shadow that falls over the entire book. Maybe the whole mission-focus of the Mauritius Command.

As another thing.. I think originally when Maturin started smoking tobacco, he claimed it would help him kick opium, and I think it worked for awhile, but by this book he's just doing both at full blast. Then when he discovers the coca leaf he's sure it will help him combat his laudanum addiction again, but almost immediately he's taking coca leaf in the day and laudanum at night and tobacco whenever he wants
posted by fleacircus at 2:13 PM on May 30, 2018

i'm 2 books ahead so canon is all ahoo now but when is the incident where he is invited to play cricket with the surprises and another ship's team and does something that is either extremely great or extremely terrible and i can't tell which bc i don't understand cricket.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:26 PM on May 30, 2018

That was at the beginning of Fortune of War, after Desolation Island, when they are waiting around Java for the Fleche because the Leopard is kaput.

I think it's extremely terrible and absurd, he's playing the completely wrong sport. I guess hurling is what Stephen thinks they're playing. Cricket's enough like baseball (...) that it's like if he did that stuff in a baseball game.
posted by fleacircus at 4:34 PM on May 30, 2018

I posted the movie.
posted by fleacircus at 9:30 PM on May 30, 2018

The Macbeth/Macduff thing destroyed me. It's just so sublimely silly.

I am this far into the book, and the comic timing of there also being a Macduff in the crew to answer Jack is just lovely.

The cricket thing: yes, Stephen very excitedly brought a hurling stick to a cricket match. It's narrated from Stephen's perspective so he thinks it's extremely great; for the Surprises, extremely terrible.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:14 PM on May 30, 2018

BTW, if anyone is curious about owl-faced night apes, it is well worth doing an image search for douroucouli. The page full of eyes is quite disconcerting.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 6:08 AM on May 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

well worth doing an image search for douroucouli.

I can see how a person might be tempted to try to pet one.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:03 AM on May 31, 2018

Warley vanishes instantly into horrible sea when westing around the Horn.

I am up to here and found that moment shocking in its abruptness.

There's a lot of domesticity about O'Brian's descriptions of life aboard ship. But every now and then he likes to remind us it's a harsh and dangerous occupation: that you might die, or be horribly injured, at any moment simply by being unlucky. This is one of those: everything's going reasonably well and then suddenly everything's going terribly bad and people die.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:27 AM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

There’s a good video from the 60s of 15-year-old Royal Navy trainees (and one children’s TV presenter) climbing the rigging on land. The idea of doing it in heavy weather is just horrifying.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:12 PM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

the video doesn't wholly represent past practices though, as sailors in the time of the series and prior to the series would be doing that climbing barefoot, which is much less slippy than doing it with smooth leather-soled shoes on. so very very marginally less terrifying but still with extreme terror.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:36 PM on June 1, 2018

I knew before clicking that link that it was going to be John Noakes. That one's a little before my time, but I vividly remember watching this even-more-terrifying climb.

It is an odd book, isn't it? The chase of the Norfolk is so drawn out, and with so many setbacks to the Surprise; and in the end it's force of nature, not the Surprise that dishes the Norfolk. And then the Surprises and the Norfolks squabbling over territory on the beach: a microcosm of the war.

The sea rescue by a boat of castrating Polynesian women felt more than a little bit silly; and veered uncomfortably close to noble-savages racism, I thought.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:30 PM on June 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Highly silly, though I like Jack's RN-tinted vision where anyone who is exercising physical authority is some kind of bosun. (And all the other times when things are seen in naval lights such as when he has to climb the palm tree and has to note it doesn't have any stays, as if a decent tree would.)
posted by fleacircus at 2:38 PM on June 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Quote of the book: "I trepanned Mrs Butcher for a persistent migraine, and she has never complained since."
posted by bq at 1:28 PM on September 16, 2019

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