Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tapestry of Life

Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools is a novel by Katherine Anne Porter. Her only novel, it was published in 1962 on April 1 (April Fools' Day). It is the tale of a group of disparate characters, from several different countries and backgrounds, who sail from Mexico to Germany aboard a mixed freighter and passenger ship. In her note prefacing the novel Porter writes :

When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new -- I am a passenger on that ship. (p. 1)

The ironic epigraph for the first section of the novel, from Baudelaire, is "Quand partons-nous vers le bonheur?". On the very first line of the novel, however, we see a truer sign of what is to come, as the port city of Veracruz is described as "a little purgatory'. Soon the ship that sails becomes just that for the passengers in this complex tale. The ship is populated with a grand complement of passengers (so many that the publisher thoughtfully included a listing of characters preceding the novel proper, xi - xiii). While the majority are Germans there are Americans, Swiss, Spaniards and others, including the masses in steerage.

Porter deftly weaves the stories of each of the several couples and individuals who can each be seen as on a journey into hell as their passions simmer during the voyage. Episodes are encapsulated within the frame of embarkation and disembarkation where characters are presented in their interactions with one another during the voyage, and histories and relationships of several dozen are explored extensively. It takes less than a month in the year of 1931, but the end of the decade and the war it will bring seems to be foreshadowed in some of the tensions that develop during the story.

While leavened with comic moments, it was the presence of love and death and, unfortunately, not a little inhumanity that impressed me the most. The pessimism sometimes seems to be overwhelming and her satire suggests the rise of Nazism and looks metaphorically at the progress of the world on its "voyage to eternity". The sum of the multiplicity of moments and personal details is a tapestry of life that results in a great novel.

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. Little, Brown & Company, Boston. 1962.


Candy Schultz said...

I love her stories but I have never read this. Oh dear I might have to.

James said...

I have not read her stories and would recommend this with the caveat that it is very pessimistic regarding human behavior. It is well written, however with sharply delineated characters.

Amy said...

Just discovered this review of one of my favorite novels. The pessimism is there, I agree, but there is also a great sympathy, maybe even pity, for the characters. I was moved by all of them, even the less sympathetic ones, in their folly.

I've also loved her stories/novellas, particularly Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which manages to make influenza delirium sound beautiful!

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Her beautiful writing mitigates the pessimism for me.