Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reflections on Omoo

The Melville, Pennsylvania Project, Book IX

Anyone with a working man’s knowledge of Herman Melville’s life and his work knows that his first novel, Typee, was his most successful, and that it was based heavily on his experiences in French Polynesia after deserting from a whaling vessel. There in the South Pacific, on the island of Nuku Hiva, Melville spent a period of one month living in the wilds with a companion, a fellow deserter, among the indigenous population. The bulk of his first novel was a somewhat fictionalized rendition of this gritty and no doubt challenging real-life adventure.

The book appeared in 1846 and thrilled audiences and critics on both sides of the Atlantic, so Melville was encouraged by his publishers to embark almost immediately on a sequel. Omoo, released in 1847, is that second installment, and so there is a natural tendency to group the two novels together. But the one thing I was surprised about after finishing Omoo, which means “rover” in the Tahitian tongue, was the differences between the two books. I am re-reading Typee now to help further distinguish the two, but I could tell as I was reading Omoo that from a tonal point of view, and in terms of pacing, it is a different experience altogether from its predecessor. And, it almost has to be said, a plodding, less accomplished novel.

Indeed, I do think the problem is one of tone or general feel of the second book. The atmosphere in Omoo is far more relaxed than the conditions Melville worked to establish in Typee. Omoo contains by far the least memorable or even likable of any of the ships' crews from Melville’s other novels. That includes not only Moby-Dick’s Pequod under Captain Ahab, but also the Neversink under the watch of Captain Claret in the novel White Jacket, as well as the rowdy crew of the villainous Captain Riga of the Highlander in Redburn.

The crew of the whaling vessel known as the Julia in Omoo, upon which the protagonist has just found passage as the novel opens, is by contrast a lazy, inharmonious, and incompetent bunch, under the ineffective watch of a sickly and weak captain who makes my own stint as an Infantry Platoon Leader in the U.S. Army circa 1993-1995 seem like the work of John Wayne. And that’s really saying a mouthful.

The novel opens, as I mentioned, with the same protagonist from Typee, after escaping from his “captors” in the Typee Valley, securing a place on the Julia. When he gets on the ship, however, he immediately notes the discord and overall dysfunction of the crew. In fact, things are so out of control aboard the Julia that the narrator has reason to fear for his own life:

The mere circumstance, therefore, of a ship like ours penetrating into these regions, was sufficient to cause any reflecting mind to feel at least a little uneasy….The many stories I had heard of ships striking at midnight upon unknown rocks, with all sail set, and a slumbering crew, often recurred to me, especially, as from the absence of discipline, the watches in the night were careless in the extreme.

Incidentally, one of the indicators that Omoo is not the same kind of story as the earlier book is the fact that the young narrator goes by the moniker of “Tommo” in Typee, but here is not named at all until late, and then his companion calls him “Paul”. Melville would fashion a whole career out of nameless and/or featureless narrators who happen to bear witness to the events his fictions depict. Everyone knows that Melville’s most famous narrator did, in fact, have a name: “Call me Ishmael.” But you never really learn a whole lot about him, and the same phenomenon takes place in most of Melville’s other novels – going back to Typee and Omoo. Why Melville created story-telling narrators but disliked fleshing them out into real, compelling, well-rounded characters themselves is something I am interested in learning more about.

After what does not seem like much time, the crew of the Julia grows tired of wandering around the South Pacific without a clue of their destination (“Where we were, exactly, no one but the mate seemed to know, nor whither we were going”). So they make a decision, while the captain lies ailing in his quarters, to stage a mutiny in order to bring the ship into port on the island of Tahiti, which according to the narrator, is “magnificent….one mass of shaded tints of green, from beach to mountaintop; endlessly diversified with valleys, ridges, glens, and cascades.” There they send the mate, named Jermin, ashore to seek medical assistance. But Jermin betrays them in the process, bringing back the English consul, Wilson, and a small band of Tahitian “authorities”, who take the “rebellious” crew into custody.

Potential criminals, take note: if you ever want to commit an act that will result in your incarceration, you may want to travel to Tahiti first. For, at least in the 19th century, a Tahitian prison is the easiest place in the world to do hard time, if Herman Melville’s account in Omoo has any basis in reality. A lighter fictional account of time spent in the slammer I have yet to come across anywhere else in literature. I sincerely hope writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or that Irish guy that wrote Borstal Boy managed to miss this novel entirely. In any event, the “prisoners” loaf around, sometimes in "darbies" (to borrow a Melville-ism), sometimes not; they go on walks through the verdant landscape; they chat amiably with guards and curious natives; they visit with a well-meaning priest who comes to offer rather inept ministry; they gawk at a young English woman, the lovely spouse to an English official, who strolls around the island in search of distractions.

All of this while the men await prosecution, which finally arrives in the form of a ramshackle legal procedure before a panel of local officials meant to intimidate. But the event simply musters up more chaos, with the crew shouting defiance at their captors. Eventually they are released without consequence, and little worse for the wear. In this segment of the book Melville affords himself ample opportunity to wax, sometimes hilariously, on native customs, British sanctimoniousness and imperialism, French Jesuits, and various other subjects.

After getting out of the brig, the men separate and find different means of employment on the island. The narrator and his steady companion, the Julia’s physician who goes by the curious moniker of Doctor Long Ghost, eventually try their hands in some actual work at a potato farm on the island; an endeavor that seems ludicrous, because of the island’s unsuitable conditions for this kind of crop and the abundance of other food, fruits, vegetables, and wild game. Finally, news that an American whaling vessel has landed upon the island reaches the two former mariners, so they once again set out across the island in the hopes of securing a passage on the ship. To do so requires many visits to native islander’s homes, descriptions of dances, naps, a large dinner party, and various encounters with tobacco. Melville describes all of these encounters vividly, but with a strong sense of leisure, for lack of a better term. Nothing in Omoo feels tense or even particularly substantive; it’s hardly more than series of strung-together anecdotes related in an agreeable and colorful manner.

“Paul” and Doctor Long Ghost finally make their way into the court of one Queen Pomaree Vahanee I, with the intention to seek permission to leave on the American ship. Pomaree is the local “monarch”, descended from a line of Tahitian royalty who act out of tradition as figurehead representatives of the English realm. Queen Victoria even condescends to deliver an actual crown to Pomaree as a measure of good faith, which is taken on the island as a badge of her legitimacy. There is an interesting description of the Queen’s inner courtyard, crammed with statues, small devices, machines, and other doodads that arrived as gifts from “civilized” society but have absolutely no value in an island setting. It’s the one visual metaphor in the entire novel that speaks the clearest and the loudest.

Once they are in the Queen’s court, however, Paul and Long Ghost find a way to unintentionally insult the monarch, and are both exiled from her presence. So they go to the ship anyway: only to be informed that there is room for only one. Our humble narrator departs for Cape Horn and then home (or straight into the 1850 novel White Jacket), but only after Long Ghost decides, somewhat inexplicably, that he intends to stay on the island longer. Cue the LOST title card!!

There is plenty to fascinate and ruminate over in the experience of reading Omoo. I also found that the book provided numerous occasions for Melville to deploy his sense of humor, nowhere more so than in this uproarious smack-talk about a French warship:

There is a good deal of French flummery about her – brass plates and other gew-gaws, stuck on all over, like baubles on a handsome woman …. To behold the rich hangings and mirrors, and mahogany within, one is almost prepared to see a bevy of ladies trip back and forth on the balcony for an airing.

Yet for all the enjoyment, the wonderful prose, and the general pleasure of this novel, it is hard to think of it as much more than a light volley among Melville’s other thunderous blasts. It may be because it was written to capitalize on the commercial promise of the first book he wrote, which is only reasonable; or, it could be because it was based more on his imagination than on his actual experiences. But it’s indisputable that Omoo lacks the tension and danger, and indeed, some of the guts, of its riveting and eager predecessor. To use a film analogy, Omoo is not Blair Witch 2 or anything, but it is Halloween 2 – slightly altered setting in the same overall locale, somewhat less gripping, and a good measure less convincing.

Melville would step forward from this novel into Mardi – a long, rambling, far more ambitious work that was summarily rejected by audiences and critics. But it’s notable for its sheer bravery and massive scope. And it helped pave the way for Melville to write the greatest of all his books, the indisputable masterpiece Moby-Dick. In Omoo, one can find only brief instances of the power and the struggle that Melville would go on to harness so completely. Yet the flashes are there, below the surface, glimmering through occasionally, for those who would care enough to look – as in this foreboding, prophetic, and deeply melancholy closing note:

Behold the fate of a sailor! They give him the last toss, and no one asks whose child he was.

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