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Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga

by Peter Matthiessen

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328333,702 (3.97)17



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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. ( )
7 vote Macumbeira | Sep 24, 2015 |
This novel with its sparse prose and lilting cadence evokes the life on the sea. The captain of Lillias Eden and his multi-national crew leave home port on Grand Cayman for the green-turtle hunting grounds in the reefs and cays of the Caribbean. The author has skillfully blended his knowledge of the sea and the life and culture of the Caribbean fisher folk to give us a very memorable tale. With the blend of Caribbean patois and Spanish in the speech of the characters the reader must become slowly acclimated to enjoy this story. Then just as the sea rises and falls, the story moves along with a similar cadence that has one still with "sea legs" after reading this novel. This is a 10+
3 vote edspaeth | Aug 5, 2006 |
Interestingly assembled story. Has a kind of prettiness and sadness about it. ( )
  NicholasPayne | Jul 26, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394756673, Paperback)

An adventure story and a deeply considered meditation upon the sea itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:22 -0400)

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