THIS 16th book in Patrick O'Brian's nautical-adventure series may well be the one that finally secures for its author deserved literary stardom.
``The Wine-Dark Sea'' is a perfect sampler of O'Brian's distinctive style. It begins with a chase across the South Seas from New South Wales to Peru, a chase interrupted by a submarine volcanic eruption - the portent of which is the lurid orange of the sky and the deep purplish tinge of the swell. The novel ends as vividly among the blue ice mountains of the Antarctic seas south of Cape Horn. In between, there are sea-fights, a South American revolution, dead calms, and hurricane gales.
But the focus of this volume, as in the preceding ones of this notable series, is the friendship of Captain Jack Aubrey and his companion, Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and spy. A good many of the incidents are told, as in Attic tragedy, by off-stage commentators. We see the awful night of the volcano from the perspective of Maturin's surgery below decks, as he tends to the casualties of the eruption.
The two friends were introduced in the 1970 volume ``Master and Commander'' in which Aubrey, newly made captain of His Majesty's Sloop of War Sophie, meets Maturin in Port Mahon, Minorca, in the spring of 1800. The current volume is set during the final year of the War of 1812 and has the curious feature (for American readers) of setting up the United States Navy as the enemy of the heroic British protagonists.
The series has been something of a cult item among transatlantic readers for the last decade. O'Brian's US publisher has given this book full publicity treatment, including a rare East Coast tour by the author, an Irish expatriate who lives and works in the south of France. For readers new to the series, the latest volume will provide an excellent introduction.
Most will probably want to go back and read ``Master and Commander'' and the second book, ``Post Captain''; after that, one is free to browse among the series at will. It does not really matter much if the books are read out of order, since the entire opus can be considered as a single story about these two men and their travels in the world of the Napoleonic Era.
Aubrey and Maturin are carefully drawn as complementary opposites. Jack Aubrey, florid and sanguine, is the master sea warrior. Bumbling in conversation and limited in scope, he excels in his fields of seamanship, leadership, and rough naval psychology. Maturin, on the other hand, is phlegmatic and complex. Half Irish, half Catalan, he fights Napoleon out of a hatred of tyranny and a love of principle.
At their first meeting, a concert at the villa of the port captain on Minorca, Dr. Maturin reproves the bluff Captain Aubrey for humming out of time. They soon discover that both of them are dedicated amateur musicians, Aubrey on the violin and Maturin on the cello. Their shipboard duets are a source of ongoing astonishment to their fellow mariners.
Fans of television's old Star Trek series might be struck by parallels to Captain Kirk and the Vulcan First Officer Spock. Aubrey and Maturin ``explore strange new worlds'' and seek out new civilizations on multiyear missions to places as remote in the 19th century as the distant planets of the science-fiction series. But Kirk and Spock are sworn to noninterference, while Aubrey and Maturin happily subvert local affairs in the name of the Empire and civilization.
For example, much of the latter half of this novel is an account of Maturin's travels across the alto plano of Peru with a descendant of Incan royalty who wishes to enlist British aid in overthrowing Spanish rule.
Maturin, a naturalist and collector in the European tradition of Buffon and Sir Joseph Banks, is fascinated by the flora and fauna of the regions they explore. The reader cannot fail to be enthralled, along with Maturin, at his ``discoveries'' of new species and wonderful creatures known only to the Indian inhabitants of this inhospitable region.
Above all, the series is about friendship and duty, but on this frame is built a structure of wonderful elaboration. O'Brian has often been compared to Jane Austen in the elegance and precision of his language and the realization of his 19th-century characters. The earlier volumes, set partly on shore, have much more of this drawing-room byplay.
In this most recent work, women have receded to a distant recollection of genteel society. The life of the ship, however, is fully detailed, in wonderful writing that is redolent of the creaking of the hull and the wind in the rigging.
O'Brian's use of period nautical jargon is precise, often elaborate, and whimsically funny. It can be moving as well, as in the depiction of the preparations for the burial at sea of the ship's senior lieutenant.
``Mr. West had died. He was to be buried at sea in the forenoon watch, and they were seeing to it that he should go over the side from a ship in tolerably good order. He was not an outstandingly popular officer; nor was he very clever, either, and sometimes he did tend to top it the knob, being more quarterdeck than tarpaulin; but he was not the least ill-natured - never had a man brought up before the captain as a defaulter - and there was no question of his courage.... But above all they were used to him: they had sailed with him for a great while now; they liked what they were used to; and they knew what was due to a shipmate.''
This book should appeal to a diverse audience, including fans of C.S. Forester's naval hero Horatio Hornblower, of Melville, and of Conrad, but also to those seeking the more complex and elegant novel of manners.
Introducing a friend to the splendidly imagined world of O'Brian's characters would be a mixed kindness; the friend's pleasure in discovery would perforce be intermingled with the compulsion to go out and acquire the remaining volumes in the series.