No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, October 10, 2005

#86: Hunting Pirate Heaven -- Kevin Rushby

Picked this up in the local remainder shop, not expecting such an entertaining read. Rushby's journey starts in Deptford, on the swing bridge over the creek and at St Nicholas' Church -- very familiar territory for me. (The River Ravensbourne, which becomes Deptford Creek, runs past the window of my old flat.) Inspired by a conversation with an Indian gentleman who claims to've been a victim of piracy, Rushby decides to seek out the legendary pirate utopias of the Indian Ocean.

He travels in a motley assortment of craft, from Portuguese cargo ships to vintage yachts to local pirogas and dhows: meets an equally motley assortment of characters, including a sorcerer who provides him with a magical insurance policy (which, hey, must've worked: he survived to write the book), a pair of German ex-pats alone on a desert island, an ex-soldier invalided out of the Foreign Legion, a French palm-reader who conducts her work via faxed photocopies of people's hands, et cetera et cetera. Rushby is clearly one of those people who enjoys striking up conversations with strangers, and if even half of the stories he recounts are true, he has a talent for drawing tales out of the people he meets.

But there's a sense of spiritual journey too, of one man's quest for (and ultimate turning away from) the concept of an earthly paradise. The Germans are quick to assure him that it's bloody hard work, carving a living out of paradise. There are misunderstandings over women and money, and one gets the feeling that Rushby is duped more than once.

He's a very evocative writer, though: not just when he's writing about the places he visits and the people he meets, but also in his frequent historical asides. (This is a man who travels with a copy of 'Captain Johnson's' History of the Pirates, and looks for loopholes and connections everywhere.) He also has a delightfully dry sense of humour. Touring the ruins of a Portuguese fort in Madagascar, he learns that the plaster is made with egg-white. "The entire fort," he notes, "was no more than a defensive souffle."

I think what I liked most about the book is that Rushby was not judgemental about any of the people, places, cultures he visited. Some of his feelings are evident from the tone of his writing, but he doesn't attempt any heavy-handed morality, even when discussing the French mercenary invasion of the Comores.

No, scratch that: what I liked most was the immersiveness of the book, the wealth of detail and minutae that make up an experience I don't exactly envy, but find utterly fascinating.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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