Hell at Sea, Volume Four: "The Mauritius Command"
Don't even bother weighing that anchor -- just cut the sucker loose! I'll tell you how much it weighs! Too much! We've got REAL MEN to kill, and no time to sit around jawing and having a spit!

While reading this volume of "Hell at Sea," it is possible to undergo a curious transition and begin to think that maybe Jack is the bigger badass.

I know, I know. Pound for pound, our boy Maturin (all 5-foot-whatever of him) is the one to bet on in any limited engagement.

He's a goddamned war-unto-himself -- the linchpin of England's campaign against France, and the crucible of all thought-worth-thinking in the dizzy, middling 19th century.

And he's a dismal, absent-minded, sententious bastard. Even if Jack is the real cat's nuts, Maturin is the guy you root for in this world. He is Pluto dragged out from the underworld: infallibly polite to people who underestimate him by leagues, pitiless and Luciferian with his scalpel and his physic, and the type of unrepentant cynic who prefers the company of nature's monstrosities to the monstrosity of human cruelty.

Maturin is so smooth and deadly, it is easy to forget that Jack Aubrey is the blood-swollen avatar of murder itself, wrapped in a grinning blond body that binges and purges with the tide of available rations. His eyes dilate with his belly as he kills and rhapsodizes, and he is Zeus and Poseidon handcuffed together in one crisp uniform with a mug of coffee in each hand.

In "The Mauritius Command," the fourth volume of Patrick O'Brian's odyssey, we finally get a chance to take dead reckoning of Jack Aubrey as a commander and a sailor. We see him how others must see him, and we watch as he matures past his flaws and foibles. Yes, he is unpredictable, rash, and psychotic -- too trusting and too loyal -- a man without any discernible judgment. Yes, he would either murder you or declare eternal friendship on the turn of a card, and think nothing of the consequences tomorrow. But with a ship underneath him, he can punch holes in the moon, impregnate women with a knowing nod, and piss dainty snowflake designs through tempered steel.

"The Mauritius Command" is the first one of these books that is a straight-up, barnacle-grinding narrative that fully captures the raw, slapdash oak-and-tenterhooks bravado of navy-flavored life-without-mercy. Whole islands hang in the balance! Whole goddamn flotillas stab at one another's vitals! And YOU ARE THERE!

The one-damn-thing-after-another plot of the preceding books is dropped for this one. In this book, Aubrey gets his mission from the start and he's even been temporarily promoted to Commodore in order to carry it out.

Aubrey's got to capture the islands of La Reunion and Mauritius from the French, or the damned Republicans will lock down the Cape of Good Hope and throttle the British with the same hard grip that a midshipman uses to get his junk out with an erotic folio of "The Red-cheeked Fishwife's Folly."

The method that the Admiralty employs to conquer these islands is "Operation Nutjob." They send their three most insane captains, led by Aubrey, knowing that they will either succeed (and the Admiralty will save resources), or they will fail, and the service will be rid of its most embarrassing scrubs.

We all know Captain Jack. The two unknown variables are Captains Corbett and Clonfert, also known as the Sadist and the Dandy.

Corbett runs a floating leather bar, and likes to gnash his teeth in sympathy until his own blood runs down his jowls while his men are flogged. He is merciless in a STUPID way. For instance, his shanghied coxswain Barrett Bonden gets fifty lashes for not sufficiently polishing a piece of cannon, and we all know that Barrett Bonden can tell his jib-beam from his hawser-stay.

"Cannons aren't for polishing! They are for putting holes in wretches!" says the Aubrey-trained Bonden, rubbing the grooves in his new flaps of skin.

Suffice it to say, Corbett's men all hate him, and every time he pulls into port half of his crew deserts his ship.

Clonfert, on the other hand, is a bit of an enigma. He is a dashing swashbuckler who lives in constant jealousy and fascination of Aubrey. He is a doppelganger -- a courageous Captain adored by his men, but who is also secretly self-reflective and cruel, whereas Captain Jack is as generous and transparent a tar as ever cleaved a man in two with grape and tackle.

When the two meet up, it is a little heartbreaking. Clonfert wants so desperately to be liked and respected by Aubrey, and Aubrey wants so desperately to eat a duck stuffed with caviar. They dance around each other like a bad first date.

Maturin has his own nemesis in Clonfert's surgeon McAdam. McAdam is something of a scientist, but he is also a staggering drunkard with a bad temper and a crushed spirit. Like Maturin, he is an Irishman -- BUT AT WHAT PRICE?

This go-round, Jack sails a ship called the "Boadicea" (you can pronounce it correctly all you want, but you are still gonna call it the "Bodacious" in your mind) and one called the "Raisonable." They are big ol' frigates, and that means Aubrey has to play host when the other Captains come over to eat hayseed-pudding and play skittles.

The egos of these other nutjobs threaten to interfere with Aubrey's well-laid invasion plans, and it is a miracle that he keeps them focused as long as he does.

The story spools out with some interesting twists: there is a hard-fought toss and struggle between the French and English -- especially once they each have their own island and the French cruising ships start coming home to tangle with Aubrey's pack.

Eventually, however, the right people all die and the narrative draws to a close. With the help of the East India Company and a propaganda campaign orchestrated by the wily Maturin, Aubrey lands his troops and honorable terms are given to the defeated French. Again, Aubrey's higher-ups swoop in and take all the credit, but Aubrey takes home some prizes anyway and hands out some hard-earned commissions.

This is a novel about equivalencies and comparisons. We see the ways in which Aubrey and Maturin are unique by looking at the errors, cruelties, and ill-fortune of those around them. Aubrey is fair and decent to those under him, even as he is kicked around and taken advantage of by his betters; he is a natural born psychopath whereas others must force it.

His enemy can also be scrutinized in the same dark mirror. There's a point in the book where Aubrey's French equivalent has an opportunity to engage Aubrey's attenuated fleet over a dismasted British vessel. In the book's pivotal moment, the French Commodore makes the safe, correct decision and decides to let it ride.

Would Aubrey have let it ride?

Aubrey lets nothing go uncontested. If Aubrey had been all alone on his ship and dying from a gunshot wound, Aubrey would have tied the wheel straight with a bit of his dangling intestine, and then set his hand on fire in order to run six extra cannons and sweeten the odds. The slow match, boys! The slow match!

Jack doesn't always win, but I think he knows that someone is writing novels about him.


Posted by miracle on Sun, 20 Apr 2008 20:15:51 -0400 -- permanent link

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