The ship he meant was the Liverpool Merchant, Captain Saul Thurso, and he had never seen her, though she carried the seeds of all his dreams in her hold.
She carried death for the cotton broker who owned her, or so at least his son believed. For Erasmus Kemp it was always to seem that the ship had killed his father, and the thought poisoned his memories. Grief works its own perversions and betrayals.
I picked up Sacred Hunger (1992), Barry Unsworth's Booker Prize-winning novel of slavery and an attempt at Utopia, on the enthusiastic recommendation of my co-blogger Victoria. Of course, resisting Vicky in book-pushing mode is well-nigh impossible (as Niall and his copy of A Suitable Boy will attest...), so I duly bought a copy. Which duly sat on my TBR shelves for about two and a half years, of course. But finally, last month, its turn arrived.
So, in between watching Rafa Nadal sweep aside all comers during the week-long ATP Masters tournament in Monte Carlo (only via the TV in my parents' living room, alas), I duly gobbled it up. For a 600-page, heavily-mannered historical novel about (with one or two exceptions) highly dislikeable characters engaged in the grimmest of all possible trades, it's a surprisingly pacey and absorbing read. It's the type of book you sink into, and revel in; a whole world between a pair of bright red covers. Still, on balance I'd have to say I admired it rather than wholeheartedly loved it.
The narrative voice is an omniscient one, viewing events with portentous (but thankfully not overbearing) hindsight. Inhuman horrors and banal daily life alike are recounted in the same verbose, rather grave (if not quite as objective and detached as its style would suggest) tone:
Thurso's face had never been remarkable for its mobility and with the years it had set very hard indeed; but his impassivity seemed now to have a quality of consternation about it, as if rock had been able to realize at last what the weather had done to it. "Well-being," he repeated in his hoarse, toneless voice. "Well-being." It had the effect of a wondering interrogative.
The style feels of a piece with its mid-eighteenth-century setting, but the novel never crosses into pastiche - and is avowedly a creation of a later date than the one under discussion (as early comments like "...commodiously, as might have been said then - a word curiously typical of the age" make clear). Still, it plays a considerable role in creating the atmosphere, and - significantly - giving an idea of the mental landscape in which the protagonists operate. This is necessary, since the omniscient narration dips into characters' interiorities but always keeps us at a remove from them. For the most part this technique works well, although at times it can read like a po-faced lecture, telling us things about the characters that we really could work out for ourselves:
As usual the bargeman and stallkeepers between them had cheated him and as usual he had not been able to understand how. The shift to symbolic modes of reasoning, the essential transfer from concrete to abstract normally occurring in the course of childhood, had never occurred at all in Calley's case. He could not work out what was due to him.
For the most part, we follow two main characters: Erasmus Kemp, a self-satisfied young man whose merchant father enters the slave trade as (unbeknownst to Erasmus) a rather desperate last attempt to revive his family's fortunes; and Matthew Paris, his mysteriously-disgraced elder cousin, who sails with Kemp's Liverpool Merchant on its maiden voyage, in the role of ship's doctor. They make a diametrically-opposed pair (too neatly and completely, perhaps - Erasmus in particular edges on caricature, at times), who between them embody the novel's major thematic concerns: guilt and culpability, fate and free will, social morality and personal responsibility.
Erasmus Kemp is one of those fictional people you (or at any rate I) love to hate - an arrogant idiot so secure in his particular, and largely untested, view of the world that he can't conceive of alternatives. He believes, above all, in order: in individuals knowing their places and sticking to them, in a rigid, externally-defined moral and social order, above all in a hierarchy of authority in which he is comfortably above the majority of people he has occasion to interact with. This is, of course, in large part an expression of the frustrations of one who is himself a victim of the same hierarchy: Erasmus is a man grown, but - unmarried and without an income of his own - is not recognised as such by either society or his father. He is an heir waiting to be allowed financial independence and responsibility (blithely assuming, of course, that he is uniquely qualified for both things despite a complete lack of experience); he is an unmarried man without a household of his own, still subject to his father's authority.
Whatever his reasons, he's an insufferable prig to spend narrative time with (meaning that I couldn't wait to see what wrong-headed statement he'd come out with next...). This is seen very clearly in his attitude towards the object of his desire (and eventual fiancee), Sarah Wolpert. He spends considerable effort - as he sees it - wooing her, but always with the goal in mind of making her "his by title, by consent, by public acknowledgement", after which no further effort will be necessary because, naturally, once married he will "never again be required to go against the grain of his nature in order to please her. She would love and respect him too much ever to require it." (It may now be obvious why he had me chuckling even as I was outraged by him...). As he reflects on Sarah's gregarious nature and effortless ability to command an audience, we are told that:
he was resolved to eradicate it as soon as he had acquired the authority of a husband. [...] It was charming, no doubt, but there was something unseemly in it to Erasmus' view. It might be permissible in an unmarried girl, and one who had been much indulged - too much, he sometimes thought these days; but it would not do for a wife, who after all is guardian of her husband's dignity.
This is not an unexpected attitude for the era in which he lives, of course; but that it is not the only one in the air is demonstrated variously by the women in his strand of the novel: his mother, whose level-headed and capable response to Kemp senior comes as an unpleasant shock to Erasmus, who clearly would prefer to maintain his image of her as a submissive nonentity; or Sarah, who responds with a spirited rebuke when he informs her, with off-handed superciliousness, that her opinion of a painting in her house is wrong (because, essentially, it doesn't match his: "If you will only look properly at the picture, you will see that I am right."). His view on Sarah's mother is representative, but it also shows that not everyone in the book is quite so dismissive of women's intelligence:
Erasmus could find no immediate response to this. He had felt his jaw slacken with astonishment. Never in his whole life had he heard a woman intrude her opinion into a conversation on business matters between men. It was inconceivable that his own mother should ever do so. Wolpert must permit it, he thought, divided between wonder and contempt. No wonder Sarah was so ready with her opinion, with this model before her eyes.
When faced with things so far beyond his personal pale, Erasmus' rigidity does not allow him to cope; he strikes out or, on a couple of notable occasions, mentally and emotionally shuts down. He rarely wastes time with facts or mitigating circumstances. When news of the Liverpool Merchant's disappearance at sea reaches England, precipitating his father's death and bringing the family to ruin, Erasmus' long-burning (to a far-fetched extent, I thought) resentment against his cousin Paris for some imagined childhood slight becomes a full-fledged blaze in roughly the time it takes to draw breath. Years later, hearing rumours that it was a mutiny that brought the ship to grief, he cracks, and sets out on a frankly crazed mission to find and punish Paris for his disloyalty and criminal damage.
When he finally confronts Paris, however, Erasmus - slave to his moral and intellectual framework that he is - cannot comprehend where Paris' sense of his own culpability really lies - not in taking part in a mutiny and bringing down a slave ship, but in aiding that ship in the first place:
Erasmus was swept by doubt and loneliness. His whole being seemed under threat of dissolution. What became of law, of legitimacy, of established order, if a man could assume such attitudes of private morality, decide for himself where his fault lay? It turned everything upside down.
Matthew Paris, for his part, is the idealist: the learned man who was imprisoned for his rationalist questioning of Church doctrine, and who - despite everything, including the tragic loss of his wife, for which he blames himself - continues to believe in the fundamental goodness of the human spirit. In his journal (the only piece of first-person narration we get), he notes:
"They cheat us and we cheat them," as Barton put it, "that is the way the world goes round." I dare say it is, but I cannot help suspecting that it was we, rather than the Africans, who gave the globe its first spin in that direction.
Aboard the slaver, his conscience slowly breaks him. First, there are the long months of tending to sailors mutilated by their own captain's discipline - for the average sailor, here, is has little more control over his destiny than the captives (several characters are pressganged into the crew, and those few who do not die of starvation or violence en route can only look forward to similar in future). Then comes the task of keeping the human cargo alive, solely for the profit of its tormenters and often against its will. When Paris attempts to dissuade Captain Thurso from beating a captive who will not eat, Thurso gives him his orders in no uncertain terms:
"If he refuses to eat, I will set Haines to flog him before all until the skin off him, and I will continue so until he consents to eat or dies. [...] You preachy fool, you should have been a parson," he said. "He cannot be allowed to die as he chooses. They must not believe they have the disposal of themselves. If he is going to die it must be at our hands and in pain, so that others will not be corrupted."
The slaves are a commodity; their lives are not their own. Thurso reflects the prevailing assumption of those we meet with a stake in the trade: that resistance on the part of the slaves is an act aimed at, and primarily affecting, the slavers. They are not seen as beings whose freedom was stolen from them, but as wilful cargo, whose unwillingness to accept their new lot in life speaks of their intrinsic ill temper and lack of civilisation (rather than, say, really pissed off at their captivity). The man who refuses food
"does it out of a perverse desire to frustrate us and make himself awkward. There is a wicked, contrary spirit in these people, Mr Paris. [...] [O]ur lot is made harder by their sly and sullen ways."
While the ship is at anchor on the coast of Africa, taking on slaves, Paris meets a painter by the name of Delblanc, whose disgust for what he has witnessed of Europeans' activities in the area has driven him to an unorthodox social radicalism, one much more bitter and ready for action than that produced in Paris by his tentative, idealistic qualms:
"The flood of cheap manufactures, for which the people have no need, destroys their industries. They become dependent on this trade and the demand for goods can only be met by enslaving their fellows. To do this they need muskets in ever increasing quantities - which we supply. And so we spread death everywhere. But that sacred hunger we spoke of justifies all. The trade is lawful, they say, and that is enough. Well, it is not enough for me. That face on the easel is the face of plunder and death, sir, and I cannot go on any longer painting it."
Several months and further outrages later, Delblanc and Paris put their idealistic but, for practical purpose, still largely inchoate plan into action. The event itself happens 'off-screen' (a pity), and is mostly retold through Paris' journal (found by Erasmus aboard the wrecked slave ship); we mostly see its consequences, in the shape of an autonomous colony formed of the Liverpool Merchant's survivors, the mutineers and the former captives. At first glance this little Utopia, (former) slavers and enslaved living together in harmony, and sharing their womenfolk, seems ludicrously implausible, and I could never quite shake my disbelief that it would work, or that anyone concerned would be terribly interested in making it work.
Still, and sensibly, it is not as paradaisical as it seems; the years have not erased the Africans' resentment at their treatment, or created true equality in the minds of the settlers. There is still a hierarchy of authority, even if its distribution is based more on a straightforward will to power than on racial or cultural background; similarly, familiar gender paradigms operate largely without disruption. Old tensions remain, and so does Paris' white liberal guilt, which - as we see with painful honesty - is still as much a motivator to his interactions with the former captives as is genuine friendship with them or a sense of shared humanity. As he admits, the enterprise was always in some senses doomed; it was, at heart, still a paternalistic imposition, based on a view of the world that was flawed, if not so thoroughly as that of Erasmus, because it was inevitably, inescapably partial:
It was our purpose, Delblanc's and mine; his based on doctrines of liberty, mine on some inveterate hope. Men living free and equal in a state of nature... What gave us the confidence to suppose that a state of nature could only mean what it meant to us, a notion of Eden, a nostalgia of educated, privileged men?
As factionalism and bullying come more and more to rule the settlement, Paris knows that the dream he set in motion has failed even before Erasmus arrives; no reparation could make up for what has been inflicted, for the damage has already been done. Lives that have been shattered can be rebuilt but will always bear the traces. He could as easily be talking about Erasmus when he reflects that
I should have known it then, he thought. Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way.
But the fact that no attempt to make amends could ever be wholly sufficient does not make all attempts futile. To Paris - and, unashamedly, to me - his failure is a more noble one than anything the 'sacred hunger' could produce:
Was it always wrong then to believe that the experience of suffering would soften the heart? Those who were fond of declaring that they understood human nature would no doubt conclude so. But as the light strengthened slowly, enabling him to make out the bare furnishings of his cabin, it came to Paris that he did not want to be numbered among these knowing ones, that such understanding was worse than error, worse than hope endlessly defeated. If that is what it means to be wise, I choose folly, he told himself.