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Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian (1983) 330 p.

treasons harbour.jpg

Jack Aubrey’s Mediterranean cruises are typically the novels I’m least interested in, since they so heavily involve naval battles and all their associated strategising, which is easily the most difficult part of this series to comprehend. Treason’s Harbour, which uses Malta as its hub, is a nice surprise: it’s another book which deftly balances Jack’s maritime escapades with Stephen’s more shadowy land-based work in the intelligence service.

One of the things which appealed to me from the outset was the opening scene, in which Jack is at a garden party with a number of other officers, while Stephen is dining some way off with another friend. Both men are under observation from a tower by a pair of French spies, and O’Brian shifts the scene cinematically back and forth between Jack and Stephen by means of the spies’ discussion as a segue. And he maintains, as always, a wonderfully readable ability for his prose to skip along across so many different aspects: a walk along a country road, a glimpse of nature in motion, idle thoughts of literature, and encounters with foreign tradition:

It was an unfrequented road: one ox-cart, one ass, one peasant in the last half hour. Unfrequented by men, that is to say; but in the olive-trees on either hand the cicadas kept up a metallic strident din, sometimes rising to such a pitch that conversation would have been difficult had he not been alone; and once he left the small fields and the groves, walking over stony, goat-grazing country, the highway was very much used by reptiles. Small dun lizards flickered in the scorched grass at the edge and big green ones as long as his forearm scuttled away at his approach, while occasional serpents brought him up all standing: he had an ignorant, superstitious horror of snakes. On a walk of this kind in the Mediterranean islands he usually saw tortoises, which he did not dislike at all – far from it – but they seemed rare on Gozo, and it was not until he had been going for some time that he heard a curious tock-tock-tock and he saw a small one running, positively running across the road, perched high on its legs; it was being pursued by a larger tortoise, who, catching it up, butted it three times in quick succession: it was the clap of the shells that produced the tock-tock-tock. “Tyranny,” said Jack, meaning to intervene: but either the last blows had subdued the smaller tortoise – a female, or she felt that she had shown all the reluctance that was called for; in any case she stopped. The male covered her, and maintaining himself precariously on her domed back with his ancient folded leathery legs he raised his face to the sun, stretched up his neck, opened his mouth wide and uttered the strangest dying cry. “Bless me,” said Jack, “I had no notion… how I wish Stephen were here.” Unwilling to disturb them, he fetched a cast quite round the pair and walked on, trying to recall some lines of Shakespeare that had to do not exactly with tortoises but with wrens, until he reached a wayside shrine dedicated to St Sebastian, the martyr’s blood recently renewed with startling brilliance and profusion.

Similarly impressive, as I noted in the sad case of Lieutenant Nicolls way back in HMS Surprise, is O’Brian’s ability to give the commonplace tragedy of historical fiction – the daily reality of injury and death – an emotional note which must be read in between the lines. Halfway through the novel, a foreign representative assigned to Jack’s ship meets a sudden and grisly end:

“What the devil is he about?” said Jack, as he saw the dragoman take off his shirt and stand on the rail. “Mr Hairabedian,” he called. But it was too late: although Hairabedian heard he was already in midair. He dived into the warm, opaque sea with scarcely a splash and swam aft along the side under the surface, reappearing by the mainchains, looking up at the quarterdeck and laughing. Abruptly his cheerful face jerked upwards – his chest and shoulders shot clear of the water. A long dark form could be seen below him and while his face still looked up, his wide-open mouth uttering an enormous cry, he was shaken from side to side with inconceivable ferocity and he vanished in a great boil of water. Once again his head rose up, still recognizable, and the stump of an arm: but now at least five sharks were striving furiously in the bloody sea and a few moments later there was nothing but the red cloud and the fishes questing eagerly in it for more, while others came racing in, their fins sharp on the surface.
The shocked silence went on and on until at last the quartermaster at the con gave a meaning cough: the sand in the half-hour glass was running out.
“Shall I carry on, sir?” asked the master in a low voice.
“Aye, do, Mr Gill,” said Jack. “Mr Calamy, my sextant, if you please.”

This appears to be the end of the matter; it’s only in small asides or glimpses of sullenness among the ship’s company, across the remainder of the chapter, that we understand how deeply shaken Jack and his seamen are by what befell Hairabedian. On a similar note, early on in the novel O’Brian reveals to the reader (but not to the other characters) that a high-ranking member of the Admiralty’s intelligence division is in fact a French spy; I expected Stephen to eventually expose him, but this doesn’t occur, and in fact our hero is none the wiser by the novel’s conclusion. Perhaps the man will meet his just desserts in the next book; perhaps they won’t come until several more books down the line; or perhaps he’ll never face justice at all, since O’Brian, like Larry McMurtry, knows the universe can be cruel and unfair and has no hesitation about applying those rules to his characters, as in the case of poor Hairabedian.

But, also like McMurtry, O’Brian has a marvellous sense of humour. It’s far too long to replicate the whole thing here (and the only reason I included the above passages at all is thanks to internet piracy allowing me to copy and paste) but there’s a great scene in which Jack and an excited Stephen row out to the supply ship Dromedary, which has delivered Stephen’s newly-ordered diving bell (as proudly mentions several times, “Dr. Halley’s model”) and Jack realises that Stephen, utterly oblivious to the needs and concerns of a Navy man-of-war, expects Jack to carry the enormous device aboard his own vessel.

Jack had meant to take his friend aside and tell him privately that it would not do; that the machine would be obliged to be set ashore or sent home; that Jack was tolerably fly, not having been born yesterday, and was not to be taken in by a fait accompli; but these very shocking figures so startled him that he cried “God help us! Five foot across – eight foot high – close on two ton! How can you ever have supposed that room could be attempted to be made for such a monstrous thing on the deck of a frigate?” All around him the smiling faces turned grave and closed and he was aware of a strong current of moral disapproval: the Dromedaries were obviously on Stephen’s side.

“What do you say to the convenient little space between the foremast and the front rail?”
“Two tons right over her forefoot, pressing on her narrow entry? It would make an angel gripe: it would cut two knots off her rate of sailing on a bowline. Besides, there is the mainstay, you know, and the downhauls; and how should I ever win my anchors? No, no, Doctor, I am sorry to say it will never do. I regret it; but had you spoken of it earlier, I should have advised against it directly; I should have told you at once that it would never do in a man-of-war, except perhaps in a first-rate, that might just find room for it on the skids.”
“It is Dr Halley’s model,” said Stephen in a low voice.
“But on the other hand,” said Jack with an unconvincing cheerfulness, “think what a boon it would be to a shore establishment! Lost cables, hawsers, anchors… and I am sure the port-admiral would lend you a broad-bottomed scow from time to time, to look at the bottom with.”
“For my part I shall always acknowledge a great debt to Dr Halley, whenever I take the altitude of a star,” said the master of the Dromedary.
“All mariners must be grateful to Dr Halley,” said his mate; and this seemed to be the general opinion aboard.
“Well, sir,” said the master, turning to Stephen with a most compassionate air, “What am I to do with your poor bell – with poor Dr Halley’s bell? Set it ashore as it stands, or take it to pieces and strike it down into the hold until you have considered in your mind? One or the other I must do to clear my hatchway, and double-quick, do you see, for the lighters will be putting off the moment the Clerk of the Chequer reaches Admiralty Creek. There he is, just by Edinburgh over there, nattering with her skipper.”
“Pray take it to pieces, Captain, if that should not be too laborious,” said Stephen. “I have some friends in Malta upon whose attachment I believe I can rely.”

Anyway, in reviewing, I find myself reduced once again to merely picking out pieces of prose I admire. Such is the lot of reviewing a Proustian meta-story split across twenty books. I once more heartily recommend this series.

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