American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

FAR TORTUGA (1975). An experimental novel by Peter Matthiessen* (1927-?), Far Tortuga is perhaps as notable for its unusual narrative technique as for its plot. Matthiessen uses a combination of succinct narration and description, phonetically rendered Caribbean* dialect, symbols and inkblots, drawings of the rigging and phases of the moon, blank space, meteorological detail, and a ship’s manifest to tell the tale of nine Cayman Islanders on a doomed turtle-fishing expedition through the Caribbean Sea aboard the Lilias Eden, a sixty-foot commercial schooner.

Cop’m (Captain) Raib Evers, an “old-time wind sailor,” is displeased from the outset with his “modern time” crew of motor-sailors, drunks, and assorted misfits as they sail toward Far Tortuga on the Mysteriosa Reef, near Nicaragua. During the voyage, the Eden encounters a rival boat (captained by Raib’s half brother Desmond and his dying father, Cop’m Andrew), sharks, Jamaican pirates,* and finally a gale, which is described more with pictures than with words. The Eden evades a second pirate attack by attempting to sail over Far Tortuga at night during the gale but strikes the reef and sinks. Only one crew member survives the days spent in two cat- boats.

Amid the action in Far Tortuga lurks a fear of the sea by all except Cop’m Raib, who attempts a kinship with the captains of lore with his bold night sail over the reefs, but in “modern time” the old-wind sailor forgets some timeless lessons: that bravado leads to catastrophe at sea and that those who ignore the Conradian “fellowship of the craft” are doomed.

Far Tortuga received a New York Times Book Review “Editor’s Choice” citation and was praised heavily by such authors as James Dickey* and Thomas Pynchon. Matthiessen has stated that the book was consciously conceived and plotted from a Zen Buddhist perspective; many critics have noted the similarities between his naturalist writings and Zen concepts of the physical world. Matthiessen has written further about his connection to Zen thought in NineHeaded Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982 (1986).

Joseph Navratil and Eric G. Waggoner