Review: Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco
Monday, November 24, 2008
by Alessandro Baricco
Canongate Books, 2008
Paperback, 241 pages
ISBN 0375703950 (Amazon US)
9781847670748 (BookRabbit UK)
Normally I would start a review with a summary of the plot, but having only read "Ocean Sea" once, I don't feel competent to summarise it. Suffice it to say that some characters get together at a hotel by the sea, and there's a chap painting the sea with sea-water, a woman who's going to die unless the sea can cure her, another woman who's trying to choose between her husband and her lover, and a lot of strange children. Plus a professor who's writing love letters to a woman he hasn't met yet. And some other characters.
"Ocean Sea" is written in a lyrical, elliptical prose style that will enchant some readers and infuriate others. There's a lot of rhapsodizing. There's cuts between different stories that are connected but don't immediately appear to have anything to do with each other. There's a lot of work for the reader to do, and it's for the individual reader to decide if that work was worth it in the end.
One aspect that did puzzle me arises from what I thought easily the best-written part of the book--the narrative by Savigny of the events on a drifting raft crammed with survivors of a shipwreck. Although it is perhaps overlong, it's written in an urgent and engaging fashion that brings the horror of his situation to life. However, the raft and the shipwreck so obviously derive from the wreck of the Medusa that it's a puzzle why Baricco names the ship Alliance instead. Perhaps it's an attempt at irony, as anything less like an alliance on that horrendous raft is hard to imagine. But given the characters have the same names as those on the Medusa's raft, the effect on the reader is to have them thinking, "But this is the Medusa! I know it's the Medusa!". It's hard to believe this is the effect Baricco sought.
In contrast to the sombre events of the Medusa shipwreck, and the terrible revenge exacted by one of its survivors, we have the mordantly funny tale of Professor Bartleboom and his mahogany box of love letters. Having finally found the woman to whom he should deliver it, he encounters unexpected and often hilarious reverses, but in the end brings happiness to an entire village, and perhaps to himself.
This book is very much a pot-pourri, although perhaps all its parts do make sense once put together. I'd need to read it a second time to be sure.
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