When I started reading Ocean Sea I knew it was not my piece of cake: I don’t like sentimental musings. I read this book to see if it was suitable for my mother. She is retired and keeps saying she’s bored, so I suggested reading a book. We have hundreds at home: still, she can’t find a single one that she likes. They’re either too scholarly, or too full of quotes and references which are over her head, or too weird and surreal and decadent, or written in a foreign language. She would like a good story, one that’s not boring and doesn’t require too much concentration. So I looked for what’s popular in the mainstream fiction in our native tongue.
So, I came across Alessandro Baricco, whom I thought had good credentials as an enchanting movie was made by Giuseppe Tornatore out of his book theatrical monologue Novecento. He’s also known as the h of the novel Silk. Baricco is an author you either love or hate. And after completing the book, I must say my mind is literally split in two. I was getting a bit confused, so I had to name the opposite sides of my critical brain: Oblivia Schmaltz and Panit McTrash.
Oblivia Schmaltz is fascinated by language in itself, likes moving stories and has often been spotted in a trance declaiming poetry. In contrast, Panit McTrash is a sensible and slightly cynical guy who wants to be entertained by a story with a substantial plot, genuine characters and convincing dialogue. He likes himself a well-researched historical novel or a thriller.
Oblivia Schmaltz: I love this book. The form is narrative, but it sounds very much like poetry.
Panit McTrash: If he wanted to write poetry, why didn’t he just do so? The publisher was OK commercializing it as a novel? Have they read it at all, or didn’t bother as the writer was famous? Paper recycling bins are full of stuff people had bought because they liked the cover.
Oblivia Schmaltz: I suspect the episode in which the doctor is called for an urgent visit, and he reprimands the priest for sending him a message inappropriately written in rhyme, actually hints at the author’s own experimentation in using unexpected forms and styles that are unusual for the novel genre.
Panit McTrash: The author uses excessively polished language. It’s been said that this book is just a proof of concept, a display of skill with no substance. Take this passage:
(…) the soul is not always a diamond but sometimes a silken veil — this I can understand — imagine a diaphanous silken veil, anything could tear it, even a glance, and think of the hand that takes it — a woman’s hand — yes — it moves slowly and clasps the veil between the fingers, but clasping is already too much, the hand lifts it as if it were not a hand but a puff of wind and enfolds it between the fingers as if they were not fingers but . . . as if they were not fingers but thoughts. So. This room is that hand, and my daughter is a silken veil.
Oblivia Schmaltz: The author is indeed a master of words and makes use of mixed styles: from chapter to chapter he switches between narration, poetry and lists. It’s unsettling at the beginning but as you read you get used to the diversity.
Panit McTrash: The atmosphere that permeates the book is ethereal, dreamy. Nutters move inside the cheesy world of a sickly and spoiled child and her unlikely coming of age. The story gets stuck in annoying unfinished sentences and chapters and the narration goes on in a somewhat inconclusive way.
Oblivia Schmaltz: You have to admit there are some brilliant moments, like the painter who uses salty water as ink, “painting the sea with the sea”, and the result is of course white canvas.
Panit McTrash: What a silly thing. To me, the most annoying parts were those set in Almayer Inn. The crazy guests kept on blubbering about their fixations moving through a surreal landscape, and it was difficult to follow their nonsense without falling asleep.
Oblivia Schmaltz: How logical to set a non-novel like this in a non-place. The Almayer Inn is a temporary abode, a no man’s land, a place where less than sane individuals spend their inconclusive lives trying to circumscribe the immeasurable, define the undefinable with their eyes set on that transient spot that is water’s edge. A place where people who are dead inside can isolate themselves from the world, ignoring and being ignored by space and time.
Also, towards the end of the book he makes a very good point, and this is something that made an impression on me: among many, potentially endless possibilities you’ve got to choose one life, so that the other discarded option can gain perspective.
Panit McTrash: But it’s unrelated to the story.
Oblivia Schmaltz: I thought it referred to Father Pluche. At a crucial moment, he has to make up his mind about what he’s going to do with his life.
Panit McTrash: Hmm, that’s feeble. And the character’s also feeble. And what a name…Pluche? Like a stuffed animal? Like in “teddy bear”?
Oblivia Schmaltz: Right, I had not thought of that. It does sound like a talking name. As a priest and tutor he’s supposed to be a harmless man, like the flying figures painted on the wall in Elisewin’s bedroom. He’s kind of sexless…like a plush.
Panit McTrash: This book is so inconsistent and confused I can’t remember anything about it, let alone write a review. And I finished it only two days ago. What is it actually about? I mean, can you see a message in it?
Oblivia Schmaltz: If I haven’t failed to get the message, the idea behind this story is that angst can be healed by life. Living life as a spectator is contrasted with getting involved with the real thing, which can be harsh. Only getting your hands dirty can cure the malady; only with blood the colourless paintings could take life.
(…) there were three types of men: those who live in front of the sea, those who venture into the sea, and those who manage to return from the sea, alive.
Men are on a quest for answers, but truth – and, again, experience – changes us and the process is irreversible necessarily painful.
This is what the womb of the sea has taught me. Those who have seen the truth will always be inconsolable. Only he who has never been in danger is really saved. And forever, we who have known the truth, forever, we the children of horror, forever, we the veterans of the womb of the sea, forever, we the wise and the sagacious, forever – we shall be inconsolable. Inconsolable. Inconsolable.
Panit McTrash: The shipwreck scene makes up for the unbearable first part. Finally some blood and action. But it doesn’t last: what should be the climax of the book, the girl’s long-awaited recovery, is actually a terrible love scene.
Oblivia Schmaltz: Elisewin’s last night at the Inn is a metaphor for growing up. It’s when innocence meets experience.
Panit McTrash: I can see that, but it’s a bit too…obvious. Come on, the behaviour of Elisewin and her lover is not coherent with the characters. The girl is the embodiment of naivety and the two had barely interacted up to that point. How can there be such intimacy?
Panit McTrash: Also, there are too many repetition in the seaman’s monologue. The one that ends in “Amen, Amen, Amen”.
Oblivia Schmaltz: I think it mimicks the rhythmical movement of the sea waves.
Panit McTrash: It mimicks Melville, too: the way Adams introduces himself saying “They call me Thomas” is reminiscent of Moby Dick.
Oblivia Schmaltz: There is also a character named Ismael, an alternative spelling for Ishmael. The fact he made two references proves the Melville quote is intentional.
Panit McTrash: It’s not the only cliché here. Being cast away as an experience where the feral side takes over, and the human is confronted with primal instinct of survival, and discovers himself to be different from what he thought is told more beautifully in Life of Pi.
Oblivia Schmaltz: Plagiarism is out of the question. Ocean Sea was first published in Italy in 1993, while Yann Martel’s book came out in 2001. But you’re right, what happens is quite similar, the cannibalism and everything.
Panit McTrash: In the UK they were both published by Canongate.
Oblivia Schmaltz: That’s irrelevant.
Panit McTrash: Well, they seem to have a tradition of shipwrecks. Just saying.
After a few hours of skirmishes, the two came to agree that this book is not unworthy on condition that you read it like a long prose poetry, or watch it like a literary picture painted in all possible nuances of white (the fact I didn’t write “shades” is intentional. I suppose we’re all fed up with that annoying bestseller at this stage).
But the real question was, am I going to buy it for my mother? Nope. And she’ll be thankful for it. She wouldn’t have understood a single word.