Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Review: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

I'd better get this straight right from the start: Patrick O'Brian is my absolute favourite author. More specifically, I love his Aubrey/Maturin novels for how they transport me to another place and time so completely. I've read the series through twice and finished reading the first novel, Master and Commander, for the third time a few days ago, which led me to write this review love letter.

The very first chapter introduces us to the main protagonists of the series: lieutenant Jack Aubrey, an enthusiastic man of the sea, who is attending a party at the governor's in Port Mahon, Minorca, in April 1, 1800. He is listening to Locatelli's C major quartet (which, it seems, does not actually exist), and is so taken by the music that he begins to beat the rhythm - only to be confronted by the man sitting next to him: Doctor Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is embarrassed, Maturin is disgusted. At the end of the concert, Maturin asks Aubrey to get out of his way coldly enough to almost anger his interlocutor.

"For a moment Jack felt the strongest inclination to snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man down with it" - Patrick O'Brian

Given how these two men meet, one would never expect them to become lifelong friends. However, later that same evening, Jack Aubrey learns that he's been promoted to a commander and he casts a more benevolent eye to his surroundings. When he sees Maturin on the street the next morning, he goes to apologise to him and invites him to share a breakfast - and later asks him to join his new command as a surgeon. Aubrey's first command is HMS Sophie - a mere sloop - with a crew that he has to convince by his ability. Maturin joins first as the captain's guest, but that does not stop him from practicing his craft with those in need and thus impressing the crew by his abilities - perhaps managing it faster than Aubrey can. But Maturin also faces a problem: the first lieutenant of Sophie is his old compatriot from the United Irishmen - a fact that both of them want to keep secret, but both fear that the other might be an informer.

Patrick O'Brian shows great knowledge of sail ships and sailing, even though he was never really a man of the sea himself. His talent of description is thus based mainly on thorough and meticulous research, the like of which I've never seen from other authors. His sea battles are based on real battles and their descriptions in primary sources, although he makes changes to accommodate his story and characters. But while the reader is impressed by the level of detail that O'Brian can bring to his descriptions, it is his talent at drawing up his characters that really shines. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are fully three-dimensional characters with their strengths and failings: Aubrey is in his own element at sea, but makes some bad decisions when he is on land, almost ruining his career prospects in the process; Maturin cannot make heads or tails of sail ships and all of their shrouds and stays, but he is the perfect student of humanity and wildlife. His observations of the members of the crew and other characters encountered along the way are often the very meat of the story - and his enthusiasm with natural sciences allows the reader to experience the lands and sights that they encounter on their travels.

The first novel in the series introduces the main characters very well, but it is the first lieutenant, James Dillon, whose internal torment brings the real drama to the proceedings. This is a recipe that Patrick O'Brian followed in many of the novels in the series, introducing deep and multifaceted characters whose natures were slowly revealed as the novels reached their culmination points.

"Jack had a notion that some fleeting reserve passed across James Dillon’s face, or perhaps showed in his voice; but in the hurry of things to be done, prizes to survey, prisoners to be dealt with, he could not tell why it affected him so unpleasantly until some two or three hours later, when the impression was reinforced and at least half defined." - Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian is a masterful writer of characters and an expert of his historical era and setting. This makes him also a very difficult author to translate; my latest experience of the first novel in the series was with the Finnish translation. Although the translator was able to relate the naval vocabulary perhaps better than most people nowadays can, he could not properly bring the same sense of the period - the same life - to the language as O'Brian can. It is no mistake that Patrick O'Brian has sometimes been called the Jane Austen of naval fiction and, as all masters, should always be read in their own language.

Simply put, Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander is a novel that everyone should read. And, when done with it, continue with the rest of the series. It is not just naval fiction. It is not just historical fiction. It is a wonderful mix of deeply thought-out characterisations, human drama, naval battles and natural sciences, rife with period detail. It is a gateway to another time and another place.