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

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

#86: Cup of Gold -- John Steinbeck

This is the tale, 'with occasional reference to history', of that most infamous of pirates, Captain Morgan. But the story starts in the Welsh valleys, long before Morgan's march on Panama or his years of fortune and favour: starts with a young lad who finds himself determined to go to sea, to leave behind all he knows, leave behind the turn of the seasons for the changeless heat of the Caribbean, leave behind his parents, and old Merlin on the hill (whose interior decor consists of harps and spear-heads, and who talks of sailing on a Spanish ship a thousand years before). Henry must leave behind the cold house, and the young and beautiful Elizabeth whom he loves, or hates.

(Years later, he'll tell stories of being dragged away by raiders at night, or of leaving behind some high-born lady who was his love. But Cup of Gold is all about the stories men like Morgan tell, and the stories that grow around them.)

Henry Morgan finds himself duped: sold as an indentured servant, he thrives but chafes at the bit. When the opportunity to go a-pirating presents itself, he leaps at it. ('Not a clever man,' said Merlin, 'so he will be a great one'.) His reputation grows, and with it his power and puissance. He becomes the subject of stories that have originated elsewhere, and sometimes those stories are older and oddly familiar. And gradually he comes to believe that he's a figure in a great and ancient myth -- a new Troy, with Helen personified by the mysterious Santa Roja, a beauty wed to a tyrant. Afire with story, he leads a buccaneer army on Panama; but his encounter with La Santa Roja is the pivot of his life, the end of boyhood and the beginning of adulthood, the end of the stories and the end, too, of any point or purpose to the legend he's created. Morgan loses his joy in what he is, and soon enough it's all crashing down around him, while he looks at the pieces and wonders why he doesn't feel more.

The rest of his life we see in fragments: a tissue of lies woven for the King and John Evelyn, so many versions of his legend and his triumph that he can scarcely recall what's truth and what's invention -- only that nothing is quite right, even though he tells himself over and over that he's true, still, to himself. Isobel, who sees him for what he truly is, calls him a bungling romantic rather than a realist. Her tale's an intriguing one: she has only ever loved one man, a Vagabond, but he's long gone and she has set aside passion in favour of icy disdain.

At the end, Morgan's on his deathbed, forgetting everything, forgetting each of his deeds. Forgetting the wife who bullies him and the woman he loved and lost himself to. Forgetting everyone except Elizabeth.

Steinbeck's first novel: there's a spare starkness to the prose, which sometimes sits oddly with the rich decadence of the golden age of piracy. This is no adventure yarn, though, but an exploration of fame, legend and myth: and from another angle, a cautionary tale concerning the effects of a romantic imagination.

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