Review: ‘The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor’, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Story of a Shipwrecked SailorThe Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a moving story, and Garcia Marquez’s words make it come real — and yet, I feel as if this reality was enhanced by me having experienced an unending sea and the (fearful?) knowledge that the closest shore is not close enough. Would someone who has not been to sea be able to know the same emotions? I cannot say… Indeed, the philosophical musings one might wish to endeavour upon with this work are numerous, and I will refrain from others — the reader can decide these for themselves.

What I would note is that the way this story draws to a close reinforces one’s humanity; even if one has no passion for the sea, this makes the book worthy of a read.

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Cabo da Boa Esperança

Ele dobra o Cabo da Boa Esperança.
He is rounding the Cape of Good Hope.
— Portuguese proverb

The Cabo das Tormentas, or Cape of Storms, as it was originally known after being named by Bartolomeu Dias was a monumental place for Europeans, and especially the Portuguese. But, before delving further into this story, I will note that I am not a linguist of the language nor do I have that good a sense of their culture or life — I am, quite simply, a master of conjecture. And, my mastery could be entirely misled. 🙂

The meaning of this phrase is something I’ll return to before espousing this wild conjecture I have in my mind. Namely, it signifies that the person in question is in the final phase of their life and that nothing else of significance will happen for them.

João II, o Príncipe Perfeito, decided to rename the cape from the Cape of Storms to that of Good Hope — his reaction, no doubt, signifying that for him the passing of the cape was the signal of divine providence he had hoped and looked for. He had been financing journeys to the distant lands for a long time, hoping to hear that the ships made progress towards India and yet thus far, all they had been able to do was to make their way further south. Yet, where they really had to go was north. This cape provided the first base after which they were likely to move further north, and hence this was a sign.

The rounding of the very same cape, therefore, was one of the most important moments ever. Who could guess that another few thousand kilometres remained before their carracks could reach the Malabar coast, and who could even guess what sort of difficulties they would find when they got there. Fortunately, when that time came they were up to the challenge as they had men of sufficient quality to lead in those troubled times.

So, my conjecture: what seemed to be an easy task would be such in the eye of the person in the old country. For them, the rounding of the cape made for that final stretch, even if unknowingly the stretch could take twenty years to conquer and be a few thousand kilometres long. They were *almost* there. And, with that mentality, the rounding of the cape was defining moment.

And, as such, it has remained in the language even though history shows otherwise for the country as a whole.

The Sea…

O mar com fim será grego ou romano: O mar sem fim é português.
The sea without limits is Greek or Roman; the sea without limits is Portuguese.
— Fernando Pessoa

This quote was first brought to my attention by the wonderful history of Portuguese expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries into the Indian Ocean, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, which I recently read.

I find it such a powerful sense of showmanship: what is ours, is ours, and it will not be anyone else’s. Yet, this is an incredibly poetic statement at the same time. The original source is a poem (Padrão) which I am keen to read and understand, as it seems to display the penmanship of Pessao to a wonderful degree.

And, indeed, for a while this was very true. The Greeks knew their sea and its shores; the Romans likewise though theirs was immeasurably greater than the Hellenic expanse. Yet, the ways opened up by Diego Cão were nothing less or more than limitless for how the Portugal of the day may have looked at it (even if India was still a step away).

Contradiction is the essence of the universe.

A essência do universo é a contradição.
— Fernando Pessoa

As my previous post from half a month ago shows, Sr Pessoa’s statement is so very true. Even though I verily planned to write more, it hasn’t happened — now, however, I am writing about not writing. What a contradiction in every way.

Yet, fortunately, over the last few days I have managed to visit a few places so I’ll be able to put my thoughts on paper regarding those — and during that time, hopefully formulate some other expressive thoughts.


October was a good month for me but less so for this blog, as can be observed from the fact not a single post was written in that time. Indeed, as the two main methods of what I used to post about have become more complex (more on that below) I’ll need to think of something else or replace those with other similarly topical posts.

But, to be more concrete… I used to write about places I would visit and how these were, and, secondly, forward reviews from Goodreads as I do tend to write something on every book over there.

The first of these has fallen a bit to the wayside as a month in Norwich (October) did not allow for much exploring (read: I did not choose to spend my time discovering new places or rediscovering the old) and the month before that the sea was quite limiting in what I could see. The one option is to look back in time and write of my memories of the places I visited before Scotland, and I might go for that — we’ll see.

The second one — Goodreads reviews — have become more complex as the direct link between the two services was severed by Goodreads some time ago. I have seen mention of scripts and such which can still convert a review from one to the other, but I have not really taken the time to explore these in as much detail as I should have.

In other words, I hope to write more or at least ensure that what I write will end up here, but the plan for getting to that stage is pretty weak.

How I Review Books

Books can be looked at from many points of view. My one most strenous belief is that when I talk about books, you should not hear the plot in too great a detail (unless the author intends the ending to be known before the book begins). Hence, I rarely comment on plot devices or any story development as I feel I could be shortchanging the reader of the review.

So, I have to look (and like looking in any case) at the other aspects of the book instead. One of these is the writing — very important indeed for me, and I hope for most people, but I need to feel comfortable reading the book. It should not feel forced (again, unless that is the intent), and it should feel good. I should get the sense that the author enjoyed writing it, and if their words are put to paper with such skill that I lose myself in their world, even better.

Part of the above is how well the characters come out. I think I here quite often contradict what some other people say, or at least when I have compared reviews on Goodreads it is quite obvious that characters I liked very much were considered incomplete by others and vice versa. I cannot quite explain it, except perhaps I look for the establishment of the character in something more than the written person. They must feel consistent throughout, and they must feel logical. They must have culture (if that is their background), and they must act as if they belong to wherever they are from.

The above is not always the case. However, I have also noted a lot of people have preference with respect to how much text is descriptive vs dialogue (say Tolkien vs Asimov for an easy one here). I think both of these can be similarly splendid, but they must be appreciated for what they are and how they are. The being of Asimov’s characters will come through their words, while Tolkien’s characters get constructed perhaps even before they say their first sentence. That is the difference between various authors.

Next, I am always partial to an interesting story which is interlaced with enough background for it to feel real. This includes an aspect which is not directly related with either of the above, but which is indirectly connected to both of them: there should be some wisdom in the book. No matter what form or method it takes to come across, either the narrator or a character, whether or not it is picked up on and used or not.

But, lastly, and most importantly, the writing must be good enough for me to feel what is going on. This I’d term as emotion. And, indeed, in my reviews I often go with whether something feels right or wrong and what other emotions the story created. How the characters felt and whether they were right is another aspect. This, for me, that a book feels a certain way, is maybe my own classification, but very useful in the sense that if I am feeling a certain way it is quite nice to pick up a book which complements it. There is, after all, no point in reading a fact-oriented history (as opposed to a story-oriented) when looking for amusement or philosophy, or looking for sarcasm from high fantasy.

The above is not perhaps the most perfect description I could give, but I know that my book recommendations follow this. I know my friends well enough and try to recommend books to them if what I felt in that book seems to match what that friend is like. Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes not. Nonetheless, I have always taken great care if I recommend something (or, at least, I would like to think so).

And, I hope, that derives from me considering more than just the plot. For, indeed, the plot is just the first glazing on the house that is the book, and that is also why I nearly always recommend picking an old book up after years have passed to read it anew.

Longitude 180° E/W

It was my pleasure to be able to cross the 180° W to 180° E line last year (more or less this day), crossing the Pacific Ocean. The feeling of separation, of being thousands of miles from the closest bit of land, was spectacular on its own.

I am not entirely certain what more I can say. For me, this memory is so real I don’t need to use any more words. For anyone reading, these words are mere lines on a screen.

Thinking about it, I can describe a few more things.

One of these would be the sunshine Central Pacific experienced. I never thought it would be like that. I never thought it could be so warm, so calm, so tranquil. But, possibly the name of the ocean is not that wrong even though it can experience horrendous storms. Fernão de Magalhães may have been wrong in the entirety when he named the ocean, but he definitely grasped the occasion of the quiet sea.

The other thing to describe would be the sensation by which the aloneness feels. Sure, I wasn’t actually alone. There were probably about ten to fifteen other people on the vessel I was travelling, but, in general and in the modern world, that is secluded. The closest islands of Alaska and Hawaii were both more than two thousand kilometres away and even so, uninhabited. The closest inhabited place may have been a small town in Alaska.

Added to this distance across the globe I would add the distance above and below. The space above us is forever unlimited, and the space below is normally of no concern to us. Central Pacific in where we were was probably between three and four kilometres deep, and its inhabitants we can only imagine — the last frontier open to us on this globe is the depth of the oceans.

Only water, boundless water, in every direction. What an experience.

Abdication of Justin II

One of the strengths of Mr Gibbon (Chapter 45) is his propensity to draw up images from the very moment the original events happened. The abdication of Justin II is exactly one such event.

What makes it so wonderful for me to hear the lamentation of the abdicating monarch is his realisation of all he could have done better in his responsibilities for the people. Hence, the speech with which he greets his successor, Tiberius, is colourful in both wisdom and elegance.

This, I feel, is one of the moments where one realises how fully absolute power corrupts. Justin failed to avoid it and he fell into darkness. He, however, also realised the full extent of the troubles with the people swinging behind a new person, and he managed to extricate himself from that situation. For all that he has experienced, he does not wish Tiberius to go down the same route…

“You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honour them, and from them you will derive honour. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, [and he pointed to his ministers,] who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendour of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.”

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