10 Plumbing the depths
by Malcolm Redfellow
… a final assault on the secrets of that underwater tomb. The Dei Gloria‘s tomb was now definitively situated two miles off the coast, at 37°33.3,N and 0°46.8,W. with her stern at eighty-five feet and her bow at ninety-two.
There are thirteen usages of that word in the narrative: those are the final two.
On the surface
In the same parallels, but stylistically a world away from Eric Newby, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Nautical Chart hove into view. To be truthful, it had to be hauled off the rocks of the guilt pile, where it had been stranded a long, long time.
There are all kinds of reasons why Malcolm should take an instinctive dislike to this novel:
- It is in translation (and — boy! — has he had to endure some bad ones there).
- He never has been a great enthusiast for Spanish fiction, having toiled through a (weak) translation of Cervantes many years gone.
- It is heavily referential: a reader is lost who arrives here without a fairly comprehensive grounding in Herman Melville (if only courtesy of Gregory Peck), RLS, Conrad, Forester, Patrick O’Brian and much, much more.
- Chapter 1 begins with an attenuated sentence that might, at full extension, be a contender for the Bulwer-Lytton award:
We could call him Ishmael, but in truth his name is Coy.
- To get to that first chapter, there is a turgid (only much later do we recognise deliberately so) four-paragraph intro:
LET US observe the night. It is nearly perfect, with Polaris visible in its prescribed location, to the right and five times the distance of the line formed between Merak and Dubhe. Polaris will remain in that exact place for the next twenty thousand years, and any sailor watching it will be comforted by seeing it overhead. It is, after all, reassuring to know that something somewhere is immutable, as precise people set a course on a nautical chart or on the blurred landscape of a life. If we continue perusing the stars, we will have no difficulty finding Orion, and then Perseus and the Pleiades. That will be easy because the night is so clear, not a cloud in the sky, not a hint of a breeze. The wind from the southwest eased at sunset, and the dock is a black mirror reflecting the lights of the cranes in the port, the lighted castles high on the mountains, and the flashes—green on one side and red on the other—from the lighthouses of San Pedro and Navidad.
A novel: not just a story
It is a classic narrative:
- At the simplest level it is the Quest meme, a hunt for the MacGuffin. In this case we do not learn precisely what is the object until page 220 (of 465 in this edition):
As Coy walked out the door, the treasure hunter’s last words echoed in his ears.
“You still don’t believe me, do you? Well, ask her about the emeralds on the Dei Gloria. Asshole.”
- A step above that is the sexual quest, the emotional voyage: “Boy meets girl. Boy eventually gets girl. Boy loses girl” , and, in this case, boy goes looking for his real mate, ships and the sea —
Women who looked at him because they weren’t happy, as if they wanted to pass their unhappiness on to him.
He wept silently behind closed eyes. To console himself he rested his head against the wooden side of the ship, listening to the sea on the other side of the thin planking separating him from Eternity.
- Because this has elements of the thriller, there has to be what Aristotle perceived as “the overcoming of the monster”. Inevitably, since this is the age of anti-heroes, the monsters is not always what, or who, it seems.
- It is also circular, almost riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s. In that prologue, just after the disquisition on Merak and Dubhe,we meet Coy:
Now let us turn to the man. He stands motionless, leaning against the coping of the wall. He is looking at the sky, which appears darker in the east, and thinking that in the morning the easterly will be blowing, raising a swell out beyond the harbor. He also seems to be smiling a strange smile.
Two pages from the end we reach precisely, in time and place, a commodius vicus of recirculation:
So this was when Coy walked out. It was a perfect night, with Polaris visible in its prescribed location, to the right and five times the distance of the line formed between Merak and Dubhe. He walked to the balustrade of the wall, and stood there, pressing his hand against the wound in his side. He had felt beneath his shirt and found that the rip in his flesh was superficial, and that he wasn’t going to die this time. He counted five weak beats of his heart as he contemplated the dark port, the lights on the docks, and the reflection of the castles high on the mountains.
That, though, isn’t the key — for this is a novel — and therefore far more profound than mere “story”. The “moment of incitement’ suggests what Coy is all about:
“Thank you,” said a woman’s voice from behind him…
… Welcome aboard. For thousands of years, even before Homer’s hollow ships set sail for Troy, there were men with wrinkles around their mouths and rainy November hearts, men whose nature leads them sooner or later to look with interest into the black hole of a pistol barrel, men for whom the sea was a solution and who always sensed when it was time to make an exit. Even before he knew it, Coy was one of them, by vocation and by instinct.
- So this is also a journey of self-discovery. And the Homeric overtones run through the whole text.
Therein lies a clue: the unobservant re ader may not “get it” until the first-person narrator finally reveals himself (although he has been mentioned a couple of times previously):
Although for personal reasons I sign my articles and my books with the same name and modest title I use on my calling card— below the anagram, common in my profession, of a T inside an O: Nestor Perona, Master Cartographer—I have held the chair of cartography at the Universidad de Murcia for a long time. My publications mean something in the scientific world, and I must often respond to questions and problems posed by institutions and individuals.
… the lucid speaker of Pylos,
from whose lips the streams of words ran sweeter than honey.
In his time two generations of mortal men had perished,
those who had grown up with him and they who had been born to
these in sacred Pylos, and he was king in the third age.
Again I paused and looked at them, smiling. “Do you see where I’m going?”
“Goddammit!” said Coy. “Just spit it out, will you?”
I gifted him with a look of affection. I believe I have told you that I liked this individual more by the minute.
By now any reader must have sussed there is a nominative code here:
Coy, the beached sea-man, the main personality of the story, into whose though processes we are allowed a privileged and unauthorised perspective, has a name which (if Malcolm’s Spanish-English dictionary is reliable) means “hammock”, “berth”.
His antagonist is the seductive Tánger Soto. “Soto” suggests thicket, then this:
“My father, though, was in the service,” she added.
There was a note of defiance, or perhaps of pride, in her words. That confirmed a number of things Coy had noticed: a certain way she had of moving, a gesture here and there, and the serene, slightly haughty self-discipline that seemed to take over at times.
“Army. He retired as a colonel, after spending most of his life in Africa.”
“Is he still alive?” “No.”
She spoke without a trace of emotion. It was impossible to know if it upset her to talk about it. Coy studied the navy-blue irises, and she bore his scrutiny with no expression.
“Which is why your name is Tánger. For Tangier.”
“Which is why my name is Tánger.”
Why did the combination of “Colonel” “North Africa” and “Tangiers” prompt Malcolm that in July 1936 a certain Francisco Franco was able to transport his shock-troops of the Spanish Army of Africa from Tangiers to Seville, courtesy of the Italian Air Force’s Junkers? Seville_ eight references, including:
They intended to make an all-out effort at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, where they calculated some eighty ships had gone down on their way to unload in Seville with more gold aboard than the Banco de Espana has. But this isn’t Florida; they couldn’t get official authorization.
El Piloto is Coy’s help-mate, who provides the boat from which the underwater exploration is done. Coy has known him since youth:
“Do you have much experience as a diver?”
“I have some. I took a course at the naval diving center, and a couple of summers I worked cleaning ships’ hulls with a wire brush, blind to anything farther away than my nose. During vacations, I also dived for Roman amphoras with Pedro el Piloto.”
‘And who is Pedro el Piloto?”
“The owner of the Carpanta. A friend.”
“That’s prohibited now.”
“Bringing up amphoras.”
We never have any other name for Piloto. Were this commedia dell’arte (and, in some ways, it is), we have encountered El Capitano — but more subdued, less bombastic, more restrained. He is, though, in at the death, fulfilling the rôle that Coy had repeatedly promised:
He heard El Piloto’s footsteps behind him, and felt him lean beside him against the balustrade.
Coy said nothing …
“I held her hand,” said El Piloto. “She thought it was you.”
The apparent villains, Horacio Kiskoros, the dwarf Argentinian ex-torturer, and his employer, Nino Palermo of the two-tone eyes, are the obvious “monsters”.
This is, to Malcolm’s bestaggerment, a fine novel.
It has a Homeric central character (only one —all except Coy are seen in reflection) who is credible, deep, contorted, satisfied and unsatisfied, torn, and unfulfilled. It has a “mission” which isn’t the search for the emeralds (at the end they are overlooked). It takes us from a moment of incitement to a dénouement and a reasonably satisfactory conclusion.
Then there is Tánger:
“What you are,” he said, “is a witch. A goddamn scheming witch.”
“Sirens,” he said suddenly.
She looked at him with surprise.
“What about sirens?”
Coy lifted his hands and let them drop.
“I don’t know. They sang, Homer said. They called to the sailors, isn’t that right? And the sailors couldn’t help themselves.”
“Because they were idiots. They ran right onto the reefs, destroying their ships.”
“I’ve been there.” Coy’s expression had darkened. “I’ve been on the reefs, and I don’t have a ship. It will be some time before I have one again, and now I don’t have anything better to do.”