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The Fortune of War and The Glass Palace

The Fortune of War was a great read — typical Patrick O’Brian. There are setpiece naval battles, intrigue, romance, all that is a typical of an adventure involving Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend — surgeon and British secret agent Stephen Maturin. They are caught up in the War of 1812 and brought as prisoners of war to Boston. But not all Americans like the war — not the rich Bostonian merchants at least whose trade suffers as a result of the British naval blockade. Maturin meets Diana Villiers again, and this time she is his. She leaves the wicked, rich Southern plantation owner, who also happens to be an American secret agent thick as thieves with the evil Frenchmen, and joins Aubrey and Maturin as they escape from detention and are picked up by a British man-of-war. This synopsis makes it sound like a typical action adventure but O’Brian’s deft characterisation and period details make it a compelling story.

I have just started reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. I earlier tried reading his The Calcutta Chromosome, attracted by the title because Calcutta (Kolkata) is my home town, but gave up — science fiction usually leaves me cold. The Glass Palace, on the other hand, deals with history. It starts with the British colonisation of Burma and, says the blurb, “presents… a band of memorable characters, spread across Burma, Malaya and India”. I have only read the first few pages where an Indian boy, just arrived in Mandalay, sees the British invade the royal capital and depose King Thebaw. The story beginning in the 1880s continues through subsequent generations till Burmese independence and its aftermath. 

I am interested in the colonial experience and expect to spend some agreeable hours reading about the era. Coming from India and living in Singapore, I want to know more about the region and its history, especially as seen through the eyes of immigrants. A lot of Indians, like a lot of Chinese, settled in South-east Asia during British rule. Life for the local population also changed under the British. This book deals with the experience.      

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1812 and all that: Aubrey and Maturin

Masterandcommander I haven’t seen the film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but like the author, Patrick O’Brian. So it was a pleasure to pick up the book, The Fortune of War, where Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, doctor and secret agent Stephen Maturin, are caught in the War of 1812.

I haven’t come to the actual fighting yet; I am still in the early part where Aubrey leaves behind his old ship, the Leopard, in the East Indies and sails with the doctor and his men for England to take command of a new ship. But the Royal Navy ship taking them home catches fire and sinks after rounding the Cape. Aubrey and his men row across the vast ocean until they are picked up by another British naval vessel. On board, they hear talk of war between Britain and America.

The Americans have already won a naval engagement, Aubrey hears and — like the other Royal Navy officers — cannot believe how that could happen while Maturin worries how the hostilities might affect Britain, already at war against Napoleon. Maturin, with his Spanish-Irish connections, hates Napoleon the tyrant and conqueror of Spain and wants Britain to beat back the French instead of being drawn into a war with America.

I have read the book up to that point and do not know what is to come. I haven’t read The Far Side of The World where the War of 1812 continues. I have to read the adventures in a piecemeal, haphazard fashion, having to borrow the books from the library. So I have read the first book, Master and Commander, the second, Post Captain, and some of the later books, such as The Letter of Marque, The Commodore and The Yellow Admiral, but have yet to read some of the intervening adventures.

O’Brian is a wonderful writer who can make the past come alive. He not only tries to get the language and the details right; his characters are also masterly drawn.

Aubrey is a bluff sailor while Maturin has a complex personality, but we see the other side of the sailor, too — the loving husband and father far from home. When he craves action or booty, he is only trying to advance his career or enrich himself to provide for his family. The sailor far from home is really a family man at heart. I can empathise with him and his lovely wife who love each other deeply despite their prolonged separations. It makes me think of myself and my wife and my son — she is in Calcutta (Kolkata), he has gone to college in the US, while I am in Singapore. But enough about myself.

O’Brian can be funny too. He describes Aubrey, a fine captain and navigator but no bookman himself, educating his midshipmen — young lads who had to be taught by their captains at the time. Aubrey quizzes the boys on the Bible. Who is Abraham, he asks. A bosun, says one; a corn chandler, says another, remembering something about Abraham and his "seed"; the third boy says, "Oh, he was an ordinary wicked Jew."  As Eliot might say, "After such knowledge what forgiveness?"  Aubrey canes the boy.