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Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga

by Peter Matthiessen

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338632,536 (4.03)25



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Read the book and then go back and open it at a random page and you are at once transported into the world of low life caribbean junk sailors at the fag end of the green turtle hunting industry. Locked on a decrepit and bastardised fishing vessel with a crew who speak childishly of the old days and voodoo practises while feeling perfectly at home with casual violence; both spoken and unspoken would not be most peoples idea of a caribbean cruise. The crew of the Lillias Eden litter and spoil all that they see and yet Peter Mathiessen has captured that world with a prose style that combines concrete poetry with inane chatter and pithy descriptions of rugged, dangerous beauty.

The book describes the working voyage of a crew of rough, desperate men chasing the green sea turtles who are fast disappearing from the Caribbean waters. The turtle hunters are a fairly close knit community who are unravelling through the dearth of turtles and the coming of a more modern world in which they are unfit to play a part. They are hampered by having to take on crew members who are foreign to their ways and a captain who is notorious for his mismanagement of his charges. They pass the time by telling stories of the good old days, which were not so good at all and are interwoven with superstition and an increasing unease with one of the new members of the crew who is an “Obeah worker” ( practises folk magic and sorcery). The green turtles prove elusive and a constant stream of ill wind and bad weather and the bad vibrations from the poorly functioning new engines and the petty and not so petty rivalries between crew members make for a book where disaster appears to be on the next stretch of the ocean.

Matthiessen builds the atmosphere in a unique way by spreading his words across the page. Word placement and the spaces around the paragraphs, sentences and phrases give the book a look of modern poetry, but it all works beautifully together to tell an edgy word blown story. Matthiessen uses a localised vernacular of Caribbean speech set out in indented paragraphs which he intersperses with his pithy descriptions of scenery and observations and they combine beautifully to move the story along. The look and feel of the words on the page make this pared down literature reflect the feel of the natural world of the Caribbean seascapes; there is no room for the author to tell us who is speaking and rather like the way Hilary Mantel uses a similar technique in her Tudor Historical novels the reader is soon in tune with what is going on.

Captain Raib says to no one in particular that:

“Blowin my life away, dass what it doin. Dis goddom wind is blowin my life away”

The wind, the bad weather, the bad omens, the modern world encroaching are all destroying these broken men; there are no heroes only more desperation and Matthiessen's sparsely poetic prose captures this brilliantly. This may not be story telling that everyone will enjoy, but it is story telling that has a gritty reality that captures the imagination. My advice is to get hold of a copy of the book, open it at random and see if you can feel the swell and the salt of the open sea in the wind blown prose. You might then think this is a voyage worth taking. I certainly did and so 4.5 stars. ( )
6 vote baswood | Nov 11, 2015 |
I read this and drowned in it, and the turtles ate me. Brownie licked my blood off his knife as Wodie Greaves introduced me with charming formality to the duppies of his youth. The Jamaicans used my skull for a pissoir; where now my gibes, my gambols, my songs? Every time I went out on a sailboat for twenty years the crazy way Peter Matthiessen inscribed his words directly on my central nervous system bloomed out again like a salt-tang-simplex virus, a Gulf-stream-of-consciousness. And then at the end of twenty years I read it again and drowned and was eaten and licked and introduced and pissed in anew. Incredible book. ( )
7 vote MeditationesMartini | Oct 30, 2015 |
The experience of reading Far Tortuga is more like that of viewing a painting than has been the case with any other novel I've ever read.

What sort of painting? My intellect wants to say Impressionist, or even Romantic, like The Slave Ship, by J.W. Turner (1840):
but my intuition says Henri Rousseau (e.g., The Dream, 1910):

This is not because of the sensory effects, although they are almost painfully vivid, as if ringing brightly through the sheen of a drug that heightens awareness; but because of a quality of isness that can't be achieved with complete sentences and conventional grammar and typography.

It's not much use to look for a story here. There pretty much isn't one. Some guys in the Caymans go fishing for turtles and run into trouble. Or rather, there is drama, but there's not much that resembles a plot. There are certainly characters. And themes. Most of all, we have setting, setting, setting. Not described so much as evoked. Recreated. That's the mastery of it.

The work is probably brilliant; it's been called so by better qualified readers than I. For my part, I can appreciate its beauty and admire its execution, but I don't like it very much, and I don't want to read it again. Similarly, I've stood for long, thoughtful views in front of this painting by John Singleton Copley (Watson and the Shark, 1778):
but I wouldn't want to live with it. ( )
10 vote Meredy | Oct 19, 2015 |
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. ( )
10 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+
5 vote edspaeth | Aug 5, 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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