Thursday, February 23, 2017
Mark Helprin's story is an old-fashioned one in many ways, and a wonderful leap of imagination. Set in the Indian Ocean sailing waters off the coast of Africa in 1909, it's composed entirely of letters, or perhaps better "memos to file," written by the captain of the ship about strange and extraordinary events. It's not exactly epistolary, which implies correspondence among two or more people, but more like a series of journal entries. Near Madagascar, the ship encounters a typhoon, a powerful cyclone at sea. They see the powerful funnel raking debris off the land as it heads to sea and creates a giant waterspout. It comes close enough to the ship that the crew hears the terrible noise it makes. Then it veers away, leaving them bobbing among the debris, miraculously uninjured. They spy an ape clinging to debris in the water. Without thinking about it, they rescue it and bring it aboard, where it quickly climbs the riggings of the sailing vessel and refuses to come down. Even as the primate comes aboard the captain realizes the mistake. The immediate plan is to put it back in the water where the currents favor it drifting to shore. But it won't come down and a day or two later they are on the high seas again. It is a powerful animal and the crew is afraid of it, but they can't capture it. The letters span about two weeks, from Madagascar to Suez, detailing the fate of the ape and the men aboard the ship. It is both comical and tragic, very funny and very sad. The letters seem gimmicky in some ways, a self-consciously old-fashioned device, but they work. The point of view is the captain addressing his corporate betters. The dates and letters also put the action at a great remove. The events, especially the cyclone, feel like fairy tale stuff. It all turns on the ape, which wisely is made more naturalistic than fantastical. The captain himself tells us exactly what to make of the events at the end of the story, and his conclusion may be the most disturbing thing of all in a story filled with gnawing unease. It feels a little like something Joseph Conrad might write, updated with the sensibilities and perspective of the mid-'70s, when the story was written and published. It's exotic and pedestrian at once. Its strangest elements, the tornado and the ape, are described exquisitely well, accomplishing that sense of transport that fiction can do so well, and then it only gets better from there.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks