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

Saturday, December 29, 2007

#78: Pirate Freedom -- Gene Wolfe

... where the hurricanes blow and lean, hard ships snap at the edges of the Spanish Main like wolves around a sheepfold ...

I have a horrible feeling I've missed something very important about Pirate Freedom. Because surely it can't simply be a pirate story with a time-travel framing narrative that allows the protagonist to keep stepping back and telling us that it's not like in the movies.

It is a Gene Wolfe novel, all right. Unreliable narrator? Individual who is not who (s)he seems? Plot like a Mobius strip? Narrative breaks just before something really important happens? Unexpected reappearance of apparently minor characters? All of the above? [Tick]. (Has anyone done a survey of Character-A-revealed-as-Character-B? I have a feeling it's more likely to be females than males, though this may be mostly to do with the majority of Wolfe's protagonists being male.)

If I read Pirate Freedom as a straightforward piratical adventure, it works pretty well. Captain Cris (as he is commonly known) rises through the ranks with precocious speed -- his age isn't given, but he's pretty young at the beginning of his adventures ... or at the beginning of the book, anyway -- and brings a modern sensibility to his career as a freebooter. Slaves are treated humanely, women with respect, underdogs with sympathy, enemies with the cold-blooded ruthlessness that they deserve. Cris falls in love with the beautiful and ferocious Novia (Spanish for 'sweetheart') and becomes fast friends with an English pirate, Captain Burt, who confides the details of his buried treasure.

Meanwhile, the framing narrative ticks along ever so quietly. It's possible to reconstruct events outside the novel; to form a hypothesis about Cris's father's business, and make a stab at identifying the time at which the tale's being told. What we can't guess at is the mechanism; what we can't predict is what happens after the last page.

The simplicity of the narrative is enhanced by the occasional glowing image (ships as wolves) and some very fine, because understated, descriptive passages. It's a rivetting read. But I still have that sense that, if I look at it just right, it'll snap into focus like an optical illusion, and I'll see more.

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