A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 25 August 2019.
Paul Lynch seems to have avoided the cloying embrace of the mutual adoration society that constitutes literary life in Ireland. He’s popular in France where he has won numerous awards and in the USA. At home his talents are less celebrated, although he did win the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2018. Maybe he doesn’t fit the current fashion for books that are inspired by personal misfortunes or dysfunctional families. His novels are artistic creations, often based on historical events, where the author doesn’t intrude. His last novel, Grace, had its background in the Famine and his latest work is based on an extraordinary real-life story.
The title of Lynch’s absorbing book is an evocative one for the dwindling number who remember the old Bobby Darin song. But Lynch is not interested in torch songs or even Sandra Dee, his concerns are more elemental. Bolivar is a muscular fisherman with an under-developed work ethic in a vaguely South American fishing village. His usual fishing partner has gone missing after a night of revelry. He is given a new partner by his boss, a youth who doesn’t inspire confidence in Bolivar: “he is an insect from the mangroves”. The mismatched pair head off fishing. But they set out just a little too late - a storm is coming and sensible sailors are heading for port rather then the fishing grounds. The inevitable disaster ensues and the two men are cast adrift. Thus the story begins.
The outline of Lynch’s novel is very similar to a real event: the extraordinary story of Salvador Alvarenga, a 36 year old fishermen from El Salvador who survived 14 months adrift in a small boat with an inexperienced companion. Many incidents depicted in the novel actually occurred during Alvarenga’s odyssey. These included dumping the boat’s store of fish to lighten the load, bashing the already broken engine in despair, hunkering down inside a large ice box for much of time, letting strips of fish dry in the sun, drinking urine, and catching and eating a turtle. However, Lynch’s concern is not just the minutiae of survival or the gripping yarn of men battling the elements – although his account of these is exciting and persuasive and draw the reader onto the boat with the desperate fishermen. His main interest lies in the existential struggle within - how men handle themselves in extremis. Beyond the sea and the sheltering sky we encounter ourselves – in the dark depths of our consciousness and the troubling memories that bubble to the surface. As the two characters slip the ties of civilization, the mobile phones, the football on TV and the other superficial distractions of modern life, they are forced to look within and confront what’s really important to them. In Bolivar’s case it’s the child he left behind when he deserted his wife following a fraught situation with a drugs cartel. “I was gone but a great storm blew me back to you.” With the insipid Hector (an ironic name indeed) it’s the thoughts of a life not yet adequately lived and now seemingly slipping away from him. He dwells morbidly on an unconsummated affair with his girl-friend. His nightmares entail her enjoying with others what she denied him.
Once they have averted the immediate dangers of drowning or starving their survival becomes a matter of battling the demons that emerge from within. The story centers on this struggle - their successes and failures. Although the book’s concerns are more existential than environmental, we get plenty of attendant detail of birds and fish with plastic in their stomachs and the sea around them constantly throws up the detritus of an ugly and uncaring world.
Paul Lynch has quoted with approval Cormac McCarthy’s view that “books are made out of books”. Lynch’s fourth novel certainly has echoes of many different writers including Melville, Dostoyevsky, and William Golding (Lynch’s protagonist’s nickname is Porky – a nod maybe towards Piggy in Lord of the Flies). But the literary work this novel most invokes is Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – with its theme of crime and punishment. The clues are all present: alone on a wide, wide sea, the slain albatross, the writhing creatures of the deep, the dead crew man come to life, and the eventual spiritual epiphany (“tingling whitely of bliss”). Bolivar is ultimately just another wretched mariner (and aren’t we all mariners) who has to contend with a hard truth : “You cannot escape. When an act is committed it is written into your life.”
Friday, October 18, 2019
Saturday 19th October is an auspicious day for those of us with sporting and political interests. The first two quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup take place and the British Parliament vote on Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Let’s start with the easier one to unravel - the rugby. Ireland will give it a good go against New Zealand but I can’t see them winning. We have a fatal flaw in the centre with Henshaw and Ringrose both lacking game time and, crucially, time together. I’d have started Chris Farrell. Also, I’m not sure if Sexton is good for 80 minutes against New Zealand. They will target him and he will fade out after half time - as he does these days against top opposition. I think our pack will achieve parity of possession but our back row is far less mobile than New Zealand’s and we may suffer accordingly. We will try to keep it tight but I take New Zealand to win by 10 points or so. In Saturday’s other game I think England will have way too much for Australia - too much power in the forwards and plenty of creativity in the backs. England to win by about 15 points. On Sunday everybody will be keen to see how the Japanese speed game works against the South African power game. All romantics will want Japan to repeat the virtuoso display against Scotland but I doubt the pragmatic South Africans will give them the same latitude. So South Africa to win comfortably. The fourth match should be the easiest to predict with a full-strength Wales, guided by the canny Gatland, expected to comfortably defeat a disheveled France. But you just don’t know with France. I’ll go with form and say a comfortable Welsh victory. So head down to Paddy Power and do your accumulator. (Actually don’t bother - he’s only offering 7-4 against these four results.)
The absorbing Brexit saga is also heading for its finale and this game is hard to call. Essentially Johnson needs a substantial number of Labour MPs to defect in order to carry the day. If I were a Labour MP in a shaky constituency I would definitely consider disobeying the Whip. If Johnson fails to get his deal carried there will certainly be a general election and under Corbyn Labour will suffer a heavy defeat. This will be exacerbated by the fact that everyone is heavily sick of Brexit and wants a deal to be made and for it all to go away. They will punish those who thwarted this hope. And the results will mean that the UK will be stuck with Johnson for a full-term with an increased majority. There does not seem to be a general appetite for another referendum - despite what Labour say. It would surely only produce another divisive result and the whole bloody business will drag on per omnia saecula saeculorum. No, the only way out is to pass the bloody bill - so climb on board Labour rebels. Of course Johnson will still want an election based on his triumphant solving of the Brexit riddle and he’ll get his thumping majority anyway. The only crumbs of comfort from all this are that the DUP will be returned to the stagnant pond from which they have emerged and Labour will appoint someone less loathed as leader of the party. So brace yourself for ongoing Boris.