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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

2011/54: The Celtic Ring -- Bjorn Larsson

I then perceived that what I had discovered myself about the sea amounted to no more than fragments of an unsuspected whole. For MacDuff the seagoing was not merely a way of life, it was the very basis of how he looked at reality. It meant learning to live with perpetual change, never taking anything for granted, being trained continually in humility and respect for what you have not mastered, for what you must safeguard at every instant. (p. 281)

One dark January night in a Danish harbour, Swedish sailor Ulf encounters a fellow sailor, Pekka, who hands him a secret log-book and then disappears. The voyage recorded in the log -- Pekka's flight, with a woman named Mary, from a shadowy organisation calling itself the Celtic Ring -- inspires Ulf and his friend Torben to follow in Pekka's wake. They set out across the North Sea, and through the Caledonian canal, one step ahead of their pursuers and one step (at least) behind a gentleman named MacDuff, who seems to know more than a little about the Celtic underground, its ancient history (Druids!) and its goals.

I very much enjoyed Larsson's Long John Silver, but the prose of The Celtic Ring doesn't sing: the translation's stolid and rarely poetic (and jars, with phrases such as 'I said spontaneously'), though there are some fine passages about sailing.

As a book about a sailing trip, this is excellent reading: I was drawn in by the precision and vividness of Ulf's seacraft, and fascinated by the accounts of how sailing in fiercely tidal Scottish waters challenges a sailor who's accustomed to the almost-tideless Baltic. The plot never quite gels, and the characters -- Ulf with his refusal to embrace mainstream society, Torben the dilettante, Mary who believes her life is mapped out by fate, MacDuff who inspires Ulf but whose charisma doesn't sparkle on the page -- didn't engage me. In particular, Mary felt like a cipher, a plot token, passing from one man to another: even when she gains agency we're not clear on her motives. Fate, probably.

There were some interesting references to Celtic lore, for instance the triple death, Ludlow Man, Life and Death of a Druid Prince etc. (On the other hand, Beltane is not on 4th May!)

The Celtic Ring was published in 1992 (first English translation 1997), when Eastern Europe was in turmoil and former states were declaring independence. MacDuff (who reveres Erskine Childers, author of The Riddle of the Sands and fervent Irish nationalist) seems certain that Scotland and Wales would never be granted any form of self-government by the British. Ah, hindsight ...

Could have done with more maps, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment