Top critical review
Entertaining, but kinda silly
on December 18, 2003
I selected this book partly because it's advertised as being very historically accurate. Sadly, it doesn't seem the case. In fact, it's so inaccurate as far as the thoughts, values and progression of events, that the only explanation I can come up with is that it's an attempt at "magic realism."
The story takes place in 1830, where a young black man, Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave turned petty thief, ends up hopping a ship in New Orleans and discovers he's on a slave ship. The whole story is told by this emancipated slave, written into the ship's log by him.
Rutherford is, of course, taught at home by his master before he's freed. But would even a well-taught rural boy think in terms of Kant and Hegel, neoplatonists and the Pseudodionysis? A modern graduate student, perhaps, might people his thoughts like this, but not an 1830's farmboy-turned-thief. A phrase like "post-Christian moonscape" (describing the Captain's cabin after it's been ransacked) sounds perfectly at home in a late-twentieth century fiction, but completely out of place here. He knows all about evolution, before Darwin published, and the "missing link" which is an idea that developed about a century later.
Towards the end of the book, he's out of sorts partly, he thinks, because he's passed through so many time zones. Time zones, however, didn't exist then, they were invented by the American railroads well after the Civil War. And even aside from that, would you notice the changing of time zones in a trip that takes months to cross the Atlantic ocean?
Rutherford is, of course, black. But his brother, also black, has freckles. And, after several months at sea, our hero has somehow grown a beard of old testament length.
The biggest problem, though, is a terribly anachronistic point of view regarding slavery. Rutherford is horrified by the idea of slavery, and the worst part of it all is that one of the powerful black men of New Orleans, is actually smuggling slaves. A black man would own another black man as a slave? Beyond inconceivable! Except, of course, that it happened regularly in the American south, and, in fact, black slaveowners were not known to be particularly gentle. The slaves were fed into the slave trade back in Africa by other blacks, who had no compunction about enslaving fellow Africans. In fact, the leader of the Africans in the Amistad (the real ship, not the Spielberg fantasy) eventually returned to Africa and became a well-to-do slave trader. To a modern eye, of course, the idea of a black man participating in slavery seems nightmarish, but in 1830 America, it was just the way things were.
Of course, the explanation on the back of the book is that he's gone mad, and perhaps all this bizarre inaccuracy and anachronism is an expression of that. Which, I suppose, is a convenient device, but not a very convincing one.
Oddly enough, all these anachronistic thoughts and values are expressed in what sounds, at least to me, fairly well-done period prose.
All that said, the story is fast moving, and entertaining, if you pass through the boilerplate philosophizing. It'd make a good HBO movie, I suppose. If you want a good historical novel, read "Cold Mountain" or anything by Margurite Yourcenaur. If you want magic realism, read Vargos Llosa or García Marquez.
Reading some of the other reviews, I see a suggestion that the whole book was a parody. While I don't think that's accurate, it does make some sense.