Tuesday, December 26, 2006
book of books: The Shadow-Line
This is only the second Joseph Conrad book I have read, the other being The Heart of Darkness, but they both have several things in common, most notably boats and a sense that what happens on the water cannot always be explained naturally.
The story starts with a seaman giving up his position on a steamer because he is bored and wants to go home but he then gets offered the chance of his own captaincy and jumps at the chance. But the boat seems to be under the curse of the previous captain who went mad and tried to send the crew on a suicidal journey until the first mater Burns stood up and questioned the captain who died shortly afterwards. Stranded in calm seas with the crew becoming ill Burns is convinced that the old captain is against them until he comes on deck from his own sick bed and laughs in the face of the storm he believes has been sent to destroy them. The winds pick up and the boat limps into Singapore and then with a fresh crew the narrator and captain heads out to sea again.
Is it well written?
This short story is prefaced by a long introduction and an author’s note that tries hard to make it clear to the reader that it is not a supernatural tale. What it does seem to be about is the First World War and the bravery and camaraderie of men facing perhaps certain death and although it is not that clear if you have read the introduction that message does come across.
Should it be read?
As a metaphor for the First World War and the bravery of the men then it provides quite a good idea of how those facing death can behave. But to my mind the old captain plays a role here and his curse and the idea of his body being buried being a point at which the boat cannot get across could easily represent the difficulties the troops had in the First World War had getting past just a few yards in trench warfare and who is the mad old captain – any number of war time leaders fit the frame but presumably the Kaiser is the intended target? Not sure but the fact you go away thinking about not just the war but the sea and its strange ways means this short volume is worth reading.
More Conrad including the Heart of Darkness if you haven’t read that and on my shelf waiting to be gone through is The Secret Agent by him as well. It also reminds me a bit of Moby Dick so the classic by Herman Melville might be a good next stop.
Version read – Penguin Twentieth century classic paperback