Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Far Side of the World

By Patrick O'Brian

"...Do you know, Maturin, as I set foot on that floating thing, that pahi, I saluted the woman confronting me, bowing and baring my head, and she instantly took advantage of it to strike me down."
"This is the far side of the world" said Stephen.

The far side of the world it is, and for Jack and Stephen, things have turned truly dramatic. Sent into the Southern Sea and beyond, in search of an American ship, HMS Surprise finds herself sailing from one strange turn of events to another, with many a strange and haunting interlude to spice this book to the point of the mysterious. Of all the books in the series thus far, this one is perhaps by far the most unusual with any number of references to adultery turning up along the way. So many in fact that its tempting to suppose O'Brian had his own private reasons for dwelling on the subject, though perhaps, in this way O'Brian demonstrates one of the more obscure sacrifices made by mariners, thus illustrating their humanity in a fashion beyond the powers of most story tellers.

This is the book which was adapted to cinema, with Russell Crowe starring as Jack Aubrey (and doing a fairly good job though missing the mark some what with regards to portraying Jack Aubrey's character) and Paul Bethany doing a truly miserable job of portraying Stephen Maturin. All these years since the film was released and Bethany still annoys me every time I watch the film. How on Earth they cast a tall refined, English accented man to play a short saturnine, Irish accented man I don't know. But never mind, at least the film isn't as bad as Peter Jackson's mockery of 'The Lord of the Rings'.

The book is a better story than the film, necessarily so as the book is crammed with so many events and references to previous books that it would have been an impossible task to faithfully film it, but one or two details do strike me as odd. In the film the Surprise is chasing a heavy French frigate named the Archeron, but in the book, the other ship is an American frigate named Norfolk. I've often wondered why this was changed and I suspect it was to avoid alienating the American audience by reminding them that their country was actually allied to Napoleon.

As usual, O'Brian fills his story with plenty of wit, and even after so many readings, I was once again helpless with laughter when I reached Mr Butcher's boasting of his skills with the trephine. As I have done before, I tried to convey the humour to Mette, but my laughter over came me as it did the last time I read this book and I fell about the kitchen hooting and holding my sides as the tears sprang from my eyes. Just writing this, is making my chuckle. God* bless the soul of Patrick O'Brian, or Richard Patrick Russ as his mother named him.

* Or whom ever else is responsible for this carnival of fate in which we blunder

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