“Makes you question reality” – Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco

You know that twilight zone between dreaming and waking? That is the sense which reading Baricco’s Ocean Sea provokes. It makes you question reality. It should come as no surprise, then, that this is a story about the nature of truth. It is also about the sea as a source of healing and salvation. Lastly, it is an exploration, not only of infinite space and freedom, but also of boundaries that aren’t necessarily obvious. Is it experimental or speculative fiction? Maybe it’s a subtle blend of both. The dream-like quality of its prose attempts, at times, too hard to sound like poetry or Ekphrasis (the verbal description of a piece of art). Set in an indeterminate period in the past, perhaps somewhere in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, it brings together a disparate group of people at an inn on the shores an unspecified sea.

“Perched on the last narrow edge of the world, a stone’s throw from the end of the sea, the evening too, the Almayer Inn let the darkness gradually silence the colour of its walls, and of the whole world and the entire ocean. So alone was it there, it seemed a thing forgotten.”

A century or two ago it was not uncommon for guests to stay in hostelries for substantial periods of time when, perhaps, they were elderly and no longer had family or their personal circumstances had changed for other reasons and they were of no fixed abode. The Almayer Inn was such a place, seemingly run by four prepubescent children. Each of  the guests is in search of something metaphysical. Plasson, once a renown portrait painter is in search of the eyes of the sea. Professor Bartleboom, a natural scientist, seeks the sea’s limits and, on a personal level, waits for the ideal woman to enter his life. Every day he writes letters to her which he stores in a wooden chest in unsealed and unaddressed envelopes. When they meet he will give her the letters to read as a gift to his past. Elisewin, a fifteen-year-old aristocrat is there with her guardian, Father Puchle, hoping the sea will cure her mysterious illness, an unidentifiable fear she has had since birth. Madame Daviera’s stay at the inn is her punishment for having been unfaithful to her husband. Finally, there is the mysterious Adams, aka Thomas, whose history we learn about in phases through a kind of stream-of-consciousness style of writing.

The first time we encounter Adams he has been brought before a certain Admiral Langlais who is compiling a record of all the stories he’s heard about adventures at sea.

“It’s said that they found him in a village in the heart of Africa. There were other white men down there: slaves. But he was something different. He was the tribal chieftain’s favourite animal. He would stand on all fours, grotesquely decorated with feathers and coloured stones, tied by a rope to the king’s throne. He would eat the scraps the king threw to him.”

Worse was to come for Adams at sea before he found himself in front of the Admiral who, over long years, helped him become a fully fledged human being again. But, even Langlais’ patient care, cannot obliterate the grudge Adams holds.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first sets out the circumstances of each of those who find their way to the Inn. The writing here is made up of lyrical-sounding prose. The second part is devoted entirely to the horrific experience which has brought Thomas, now known as Adams, to the Inn. In the last part, in chapters dedicated to each of the other characters, we learn more of their particular stories. In this section of the novel the narrative is centred on individual points of view, which is not always the character’s own. There is some stream-of-consciousness writing with unbroken sentences that run over several pages, some poetry, some serious, matter-of-fact renditions, and one chapter of high comedy in the style of George Meredith or P.G. Woodhouse.

Further to my earlier description of Ocean Sea, I would like to add here that it is also a tale of whimsy, of the believable and the unbelievable. Sadly, the characters feel oddly detached from the novel’s integrity. Yes, they are all in their own ways broken people and Baricco attempts to reflect this in the fragmentary way he tells and structures their narratives, but it doesn’t really work – at least not for this reader. This observation is in no way a criticism of the translation from the original Italian by Alastair McEwen who, as far as I can tell, has done a remarkable job in conveying the complexity of nuances the author tries to bring across to the reader. At times the language employed is just too convoluted for the simple ideas it’s describing. This is how the novel begins:

“The beach. And the sea.

It could be perfection – an image for divine eyes – a world that happens, that is all, the mute existence of land and water, a work perfectly accomplished, truth  –  truth  – but once again it is the redeeming grain of man that jams the mechanism of that paradise, a trifle capable on its own of suspending all that great apparatus of inexorable truth, a mere nothing, but one planted in the sand, an imperceptible tear in the surface of that sacred icon, a miniscule exception come to rest on the perfection of that boundless beach.”

I came to this novel because I remember, ten years or so ago, reading Baricco’s novelette Without Blood (2005), a powerful, yet moving, depiction of the assassination of a man and his family. The soul survivor is four-year-old Nina who, decades later, attempts to hunts down her family’s murderers, not so much for revenge, but in order to find some sort of understanding and closure. Baricco’s writing here is brilliantly spare and direct which I hoped to find again in his latest novel, but it wasn’t to be. Ocean Sea, it could be said, is entirely the opposite.

Any Cop?:  Disappointing – for this reader, at least –  after the blurb on the book cover promised so much more.


Carola Huttmann

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