All Patrick O'Brian's strengths are on parade in this novel of action and intrigue, set partly in Malta, partly in the treacherous, pirate-infested waters of the Red Sea. While Captain Aubrey worries about repairs to his ship, Stephen Maturin assumes the center stage for the dockyards and salons of Malta are alive with Napoleon's agents, and the admiralty's intelligence network is compromised. Maturin's cunning is the sole bulwark against sabotage of Aubrey's daring mission.
I enjoyed this book, but not because it moved the story along. It wasn’t even that it was full of action, for, even by O’Brian’s slender standards, there was little in this episode. I enjoyed it simply because I love O’Brian’s language, because his dry sense of humor appeals to me greatly, and because the characters are old friends. But, I’d really rather have more.
I've wanted to try this series for a while because I've heard so many good things about it. Normally I wouldn't start in the middle of a series, but I picked this one up because I needed a book set in Malta. Enough of the series back story is included so that I didn't feel like I was missing information crucial to the plot. I thought the ending was rather abrupt, leaving some major plot threads unresolved. I liked it well enough to want to read more in the series, but I'm torn between continuing from this point in the series so I can find out what happens next or going back to the beginning of the series.
And irony is, I think, the key word here – the author who O’Brian makes me most think of is not Jane Austen (whose irony, it seems to me, is more of the tongue-in-cheek variety and something quite different) but Thomas Mann the vast majority of whose narrators also cultivate this involved-but-not-really-commited attitude (and his protagonist often as well – as when Joseph is said to have become in all respects like an Egyptian – “but with reservations”). Thomas Mann is one of the most imitated writers of the twentieth century, but for some reason it seems to be next to impossible to imitate him successfully – while there is a plethora of excellent, even great Faulkner epigones (to name just one example), almost everyone attempting to write in the vein of Thomas Mann seems to end up second- or third-rate (if not worse), mostly due to a vapid and anaemic prose style. Now, one can call O’Brian’s writing a lot of things, but anaemic is certainly not one of them. I suspect that the reason O’Brian succeeds where so many others have failed is that he applies Thomas Mann’s distinct brand of irony not to the novel of ideas but to the historical novel, where the genre itself pretty much guarantees a certain saturation with vivid details and a certain groundedness which prevents a text from pirouetting endlessly around itself, producing nothing but narcissistic self-centeredness – another trap those who would follow in the footsteps of Thomas Mann like to fall into.
In addition the characteristic hovering of irony, the vacillating between two sides of a border without coming down on either seems an almost too perfect solution for what is maybe the central dilemma of the traditional historical novel (i.e., not postmodern and not written by William T. Vollmann) – to present a past period as it has been experienced by its contemporaries while at the same time remaining aware of the basic impossibility of that undertaking, simultaneously immersing the reader in a historical epoch and reminding him that this immersion is an illusion, mere make-believe and an approximation at best. This is a very fine line to walk, and most historical novels tend to fall off to one side or the other – which is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact the results can be quite fascinating, especially if the novel crashes on the immersion side of the divide. O’Brian, however, always remains in perfect balance, walking the tightrope in supreme confidence. In fact, he sometimes makes it look too easy – this is always a danger of irony, that it just is not very dangerous but plays things safe, that the narrator’s equanimous distance from events prevents them from touching him too deeply.
Treason’s Harbour – to say at least a sentence or two about the actual book I’m supposed to be writing about here – does not quite escape this, I think. While it speeds things up again after the non-events of The Ionian Mission, spicing things up mainly with some espionage intrigue, it certainly chuffs along pleasantly enough, and it’s of course always a delight to let oneself be carried along by the rhythm of O’Brians prose. But I felt the novel was lacking a bit in emotional involvement. So I may have liked this chapter in the Aubrey-Maturin saga just a tad less than some previous instalments, but overall I still loved and remain eager to continue.
Theme of cuckoldry continues, now targeting Charles Fielding given his wife's willingness to be used by French intelligence. O'Brian inserts a wry aside about a cuckold's neck, a nautical term.
Jack's chelengk, and his rescue of Ponto from a well, and subsequent raised eyebrows about town.
Stephen's diving bell, and French gold; Wray's gambling habit, and in lieu of payment: a new command for Jack? Attending to a bear, recently injured by crewmember Awkward Davis.
The memorable action aboard Surprise with French man-of-war Mars and its attendant freighters, in tight quarters, Jack's seamanship delivering a satisfactory conclusion if no prize.
O'Brian names the Captains Ball & Hamner; and glassmerchant Maimonides Moses.
Three things spoiled my enjoyment: Patrick Tull is generally a good narrator, but his voice for the Italian Mrs.Fielding is atrocious, so bad and artificial that it sounds like a parody. Being party to the French Intelligence officers' meetings is fun for the reader, but made me impatient when Maturin didn't figure out the various French plots.
One of O'Brian's
"Treason's Harbour" is one of the series' espionage-oriented novels. The novel opens in the titular harbour in the island of Malta. Aubrey's lucky ship "Surprise" is in for much-needed repairs, and Aubrey must confront the extortive practices of the local tradesmen in order to get his ship fixed. Maturin must confront the attempt by the French to seduce him using a charming local lady whom they have blackmailed. O'Brian masterfully injects humor into the scenario as Aubrey tries to rescue the lady's beloved (and mammoth) dog, who has fallen into a well. Despite falling in himself, Aubrey rescues the dog, who thereafter treats Aubrey with such affection that the local gossip swiftly becomes that Aubrey and the lady must be having an affair.
After this entertaining episode, it is off to the Red Sea for Aubrey and Maturin for more diplomacy. While there is plenty of time for seamanship, this mission is more in Maturin's line than Aubrey's. O'Brian treats the reader to several fun and thrilling passages, whether it is Aubrey trying to negotiate the desert on a camel, or Maturin using his new-fangled diving bell to explore the sea floor, or an unfortunate swimmer being devoured by a shark.
The pages of "Treason's Harbour" will fly by as Aubrey and Maturin move from scrape to scrape, eventually ending up in a sea battle with the French. All in all, a well-rounded entry into the Aubrey-Maturin series. I only give this one four stars to distinguish it from the best novels in the series, but this is by no means a criticism - sometimes you must discriminate between the very good and the excellent.
Like his previous novels, O’Brian perfectly recreates the world of the Napoleonic War in 1812, using Aubrey’s nostalgia at the coming retirement of the Surprise to view the life aboard ship, particularly aboard this idealized ship, through rose-colored glasses and with a sentimentality that will delight his readers. This Folio Society edition reprints the original text with insets containing historical portraits and sketches to illustrate some of the scenes. A great contribution to the Aubrey-Maturin series and the third of twelve to focus on what O’Brian described as an extended 1812, with these dozen books taking place between the beginning of June 1813 and November 1813.
You know, it sometimes occurs to me to think