Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life of Dampier

Diana and Mitchell Preston, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, Walker, 2004. William Dampier was an English explorer and naturalist, the first Englishman to explore Australia and the first to circumnavigate the world three times. He was one of the most important scientists of the European exploration and colonization of the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, studying tides, ocean currents, tropical storms, and cartography with such precision that his work was still in use as basic reference more than a century after his death in 1715. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin are among those who acknowledged his influence on them, largely through accounts of his voyages published at the end of the 17th century. A biography of Dampier is thus long overdue. However, in addition to his importance to science and literature, Dampier also lived a fantastic life of adventure. He did not ship out as a scientist, commissioned to conduct research, but rather joined up with buccaneer crews as a young man in the West Indies during the days of piracy along the Spanish Main. His reputation as perhaps the greatest navigator of his day was based on his part in notorious and illegal raids against the Spanish in the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as on later and more legitimate accomplishments. Land crossings of the Central American isthmus, shipwrecks, naval battles, mutinees, midnight raids, disease and starvation, often violent encounters with strange tribes, unknown animals (the pirates hid out on the Galapagos), and hurricanes were his lot on his first, twelve-year long circumnavigation, while Dampier all the while carefully preserved his charts and records in a sealed bamboo tube, often while running for his life from one calamity or another. The Prestons do an excellent job of bringing all of this to life, with very good period illustrations and solid notes. A must for anyone interested in the Age of Exploration.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Fools of Fortune

William Trevor, Fools of Fortune, Penguin (1983). William Trevor is known best as a short story writer, and in this short novel one can see the influence of the shorter form. Large events are compressed into paragraphs, transitions are executed in a sentence or two that would take other writers pages to lay out. The writing is excellent, the story very sad. We are in Troubles territory, here in County Cork, where a Protestant mill owner runs afoul of the Black and Tans when an informer is murdered on his property. Two generations of Englishwomen have married into this Irish family, and some around them understand that this is one root of inevitable tragedy. After the killings of his father and two sisters, Willie grows up while his mother slides into alcoholic resentment. After her suicide he gives up his own future in favor of vengeance, in turn maiming the lives of his true love and their daughter. Resentment, vengeance and vendetta are the subjects, illustrating the costs of endless English depredations of the Irish. In the middle of this very dark novel there is a pricelessly funny interlude of classic boys' school shenanigans, one of Trevor's stories dropped in to relieve the weary reader. Highly recommended, and a great introduction to Trevor, his style and his range can be appreciated here.