Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When a book hides another one

I once read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, but I would probably never have thought of reading his Typhoon, if Christian Bobin, in one of his last books, “L’homme-joie”, had not given an arresting echo of it.

Bobin is a compulsive reader. Fortunately for us, he is also a prolific writer. Because, for him, the world as we experience it – overwhelmed, hyper-connected, stressed – is unbearable. He desires – he even needs – the invisible world, that books, music, love, prayer… allow us to approach. “To write, says Bobin, is like drawing a door on an impassable wall, and then opening it”.

“L’homme-joie” is enchanting. At one point, it makes reference to Typhoon in a chapter entitled “La gueule du lion” (The Lion’s Mouth). Bobin first lays his cards on the table: “My idea of life is a book, and my idea of a book is a draught of ice-cold water like the one coming out of the mouth of a lion fountain on a mountain road in the Juras, one summer. I was in one of these joyful penal colonies that one calls ‘summer camp’. I was left there for centuries, integrated into a small troop of singing killers, my peers, when in the middle of a forced march under a broiling sun there appeared the fountain belching out its foam of light. I rushed under the lion's mouth, opened my own and swallowed an ocean of cold water. The water rushed into my body right up to the heart where it extinguished the fire of abandonment that ravaged it. Decades later, I still remember the mystical comfort given by that icy water. Whenever I open a book, I look for the lion's mouth.

Then, almost without transition, off he goes. “Three days and three nights aboard this old tub tortured by the storm (...) Three days and three nights on this boat, to feel my heart sinking into my chest, to slide into the abyss of a fear with black eyes…” And we, readers, we are embarked as he is, feeling “Tons of black water exploding in the hold of the brain, the end of plans and dreams…” The chapter then ends then abruptly: “ – What’s wrong with you? – Nothing, I just finished reading Conrad’s Typhoon. It took me three days and three nights to read it. – Is it good? – I cannot answer your question. A book is light or it is nothing at all. It’s task is to switch on some light in the palaces of our desert brains. Writing knows more than death, I'm sure. I paid the price to learn this, three days, three nights”.

So, what about Typhoon? There is, of course, the masterful writing of an author who, for nearly twenty years was at first a sailor. The descriptions of the raging nature of the China Sea, are breathtaking, realistic and poetic at the same time. “The wind had thrown its weight on the ship, trying to pin her down amongst the seas. They made a clean breach over her, as over a deep-swimming log; and the gathered weight of crashes menaced monstrously from afar. The breakers flung out of the night with a ghostly light on their crests – the light of sea-foam that in a ferocious, boiling-up pale flash showed upon the slender body of the ship the toppling rush, the downfall, and the seething mad scurry of each wave...”

But the most impressive aspect is elsewhere, in the heart, the body and the soul of some of the characters in the story. It is there that the storm brings out the very depths of their personality, their humanity. There is Jukes, the chief mate, a quibbler, reluctantly obeying what seems to him unreasonable. And Mr. Rout, the chief engineer, experienced, unwavering in his duty. “He moved, climbing high up, disappearing low down, with a restless, purposeful industry, and when he stood still, holding the guard-rail in front of the starting-gear, he would keep glancing to the right at the steam-gauge, at the water-gauge, fixed upon the white wall in the light of a swaying lamp.” And, finally, Captain MacWhirr, in whom some critics have seen Conrad’s self-portrait. A taciturn, placid, apparently insignificant man: “Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled…

But this man, strong-minded and unresponsive to the arguments of his chief mate – who suggested avoiding the typhoon by modifying the ship's course – shows a quiet courage and remarkable determination. When he gives Jukes the order to face up to the wind, whatever happens, because “They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind”, the mate, for a long time puzzled and irritated by what he took to be unconsciousness on the part of the Captain, rediscovers, at the height of the storm, the self-assurance that he had lost: “Yes, sir, said Jukes, with a flutter of the heart (…) For some reason Jukes experienced an access of confidence, a sensation that came from outside like a warm breath, and made him feel equal to every demand. The distant muttering of the darkness stole into his ears. He noted it unmoved, out of that sudden belief in himself, as a man safe in a shirt of mail would watch a point”.

Besides his composure and his tenacity, which eventually save the ship, MacWhirr shows his humanity and his sense of justice. Coolies housed in the steerage during the crossing, fought, at the height of the storm, to recover a few dollars that had escaped from their trunks, shaken loose and broken open by the waves' battering. The Captain had sent the crew to seize all the money and to lock up the coolies. When calm was restored, it was time to gather them and to return their money to them. In a letter sent to a friend after the events, Jukes writes: “– I wish, said I, you would let us throw the whole lot of these dollars down to them and leave them to fight it out amongst themselves, while we get a rest. – Now you talk wild, Jukes, says he, looking up in his slow way that makes you ache all over, somehow. We must plan out something that would be fair to all parties”. And MacWhirr unimpressed by the danger, moves forward bare hands to the coolies and, with quiet authority, distributes to them what they deserve. Jukes explains: “It seems that after he had done his thinking he made that Bun Hin's fellow go down and explain to them the only way they could get their money back. He told me afterwards that, all the coolies having worked in the same place and for the same length of time, he reckoned he would be doing the fair thing by them as near as possible if he shared all the cash we had picked up equally among the lot…”

By his courage, his determination and his sense of justice, this apparently “ordinary and irresponsive” Captain held on to the light of hope throughout the storm. Christian Bobin writes: “Nothing more than a ring of black water around the ship on which I had embarked without knowing why (...) And inside the black mass, in its gaping maw, the yellow dot of trust (…) So we had to embrace the fear with furious eyes, to love it like good bread, to continue crossing, to lose ground, to lose heart and to continue anyway, to see the iron filings sky, to see the stars fall like dirty gold dust, and hear then, at this very moment, at the height of the disaster, we needed to hear the sweet, peaceful and confident voice, the light yellow voice that promised to bring the ship to port”. That “light yellow of trust” certainly evokes captain MacWhirr, according to the description made by Conrad: “His hair was fair and extremely fine (…) The hair of his face, on the contrary, carroty and flaming, resembled a growth of copper wire clipped short to the line of the lip; while, no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks”.

Blessed is he who discovers, in the dark moments of his life, this “yellow dot of trust”. Isn’t it true that a good man can change the course of history?


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