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Ocean Sea
Alessandro Baricco, Tr. Alastair McEwan

Ocean Sea
Alessandro Baricco
Hamish Hamilton
London 1999

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Reading this book, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Italian author is a musicologist as well as an accredited novelist. To describe the tone of this book as lyrical is to employ a hackneyed phrase, but it is difficult to find a more appropriate expression. The novel is apparently set in the nineteenth century and concerns a collection of bourgeois characters residing at a seaboard hotel, the Almayer Inn. Each hopes that the proximity of the ocean will help them resolve a personal problem or ambition. Naturally, their very singular objectives intrude upon each other with curious and fantastic results. In following these developments, the reader has to work hard to keep up with Baricco’s train of thought, but thankfully the prose structure is lucid enough to make the text easy on the eye. There are some awkward sentences (‘An uncontrollable chaos was what crackled away below his silence and his immobility’) occasionally married to an irritating penchant for repeating words and phrases for colloquial effect. But fortunately these are outweighed by some very effective passages that are both economical and evocative: ‘In the Tamal Archipelago every evening a fog would come up that devoured the ships and restored them at dawn completely covered in snow.’ The sea itself is a powerful metaphor expressing unbounded, irrational nature challenging human comprehension and aspirations. Baricco’s appreciation of this image is strikingly reminiscent of the same in Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi classic Solaris. But the choicest prose is revealed in the story of the shipwreck in which a group of passengers and crew descend into murder and cannibalism. This section is enough to give anyone the feeling of mal de mer. Not that Baricco is all deadly seriousness. The chapter devoted to the inventory of Plasson’s paintings demonstrates a subtle humour whilst the recounting of Bartleboom’s unsuccessful pursuit of a pair of twins, one of whom he wishes to marry (he knows not which) is a masterpiece of comic prose. Alastair McEwan deserves particular credit for reproducing such remarkable passages in such eloquent English. Altogether an intelligent and dazzling piece of work.

Reviewed by Robert Whitehouse


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