Top critical review
One person found this helpful
Not recommended for beach holiday reading
on 28 July 2015
I found this book really hard going. A diverse group of characters are brought together at the Almayer Inn, 'perched on the last narrow ledge of the world' in an unnamed country, managed by ten-year old Dira and her four brothers – one of whom, Dood, has a rather disturbing parapsychological ability. Much of the writing is evocative and poetic, but often the detail of the narrative is obscure and not well served by modernist mannerisms.
It is not clear to what extent, if any, this is due to the translation of Alastair McEwen [‘Within the perfect circle of the optical universe, the perfection of that oscillatory motion formulated promises doomed to be broken by the uniqueness of each individual wave. There was no way of stopping that continual alternation of creation and destruction.’].
Baricco’s style has elements of surrealism and magic realism, and may be considered as a meditation on the power of the sea which each of the characters sees from a different perspective and which influences their stories. Madame Deverià has been sent by her cuckolded husband to the sea as a to help her forget her lover; the artist Plasson, who has abandoned lucrative portraits ‘in which he could bestow a glint of intelligence upon any gaze, no matter how bovine’, in order to ‘make a portrait of the sea’ but he agonises about ‘Where does the sea begin?’; Professor Ismael Adalante Ismael Bartleboom is writing the ‘Encyclopedia of the Limits to be Found in Nature’ and has come to determine ‘where the sea ends’; Elisewin, a 15-year-old ‘dying of fear since she was born’, whose father, at the urging of Dr Atterdel [‘the most famous doctor in the land’], has sent her to the sea in a risky attempt to save her life; her companion and chaperon Father Pluche, who writes unusual prayers [‘Prayer of an Old Man whose Hands Shake’, ‘Prayer for a Little Boy Who Cannot Say the Letter R’] and says more than he should, and Adams, a sailor who had been found ‘in a village in the heart of Africa’, rescued but still suffers from the trauma of his abuse. Adams serves to link the two very different storylines.
Lovers of the letter ‘D’ will be thrilled by the appearance of Ditz and Dol, in addition to Dood, Dira and Deverià, but all of the characters seem only just sketched in and lack physical and psychological substance, as if observed through the low-lying sea clouds.
These characters are whimsical and Baricco, b. 1958, clearly enjoys writing about them but neither they nor their stories are sufficiently well integrated to remain in the reader’s mind. Being a modernist, the author also varies the layout of his text, uses sentences of breathtaking length and complexity, introduces the forward slash to break up text, changes case, offers a catalogue of 41 of Plasson’s minimalist seascapes and lays out dialogue as in a play.
I do not object to any of this providing that the material is sufficiently robust to carry this literary exploration. Otherwise it becomes, as all too often here, mere affectation. Not infrequently Baricco’s use of ellipsis results in the text becoming overly confused and there is a tendency to rather hammer home his points rather than letting them float and permeate the reader’s mind.
Frustratingly, there are some very good scenes and evocatve descriptions, and in the character of Bartleboom the author blends comedy and pathos in a heart-wrenching manner. However, these are too few and far between. Baricco eventually shows an impressive ability to bring together the disparate strands of his story, but it was rather too late.
At one point Elisewin ‘felt a bubble of emptiness burst in her head’. I know exactly how she felt, 5/10.