THE YELLOW SAILOR
Overlook Press, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Historical Fiction, Europe Post WWII
Four German sailors are cast ashore when their merchant marine ship, the Yellow Sailor, is wrecked. Even at the height of their thoughtless pre-war expectations, Nicholas, Karl, Alois, and Jacek were endowed with only enough intent, cunning, and cruelty to slip out of the way of danger and effort. Ignorance is as natural to them as the air they breathe. They are little better than beasts, and sometimes worse.
Now they find themselves in a world transformed by the defeat of their country. Amid wreckage and filth and brutality, these sailors drift alone through Europe with no purpose beyond survival. Each man quickly sheds a pride that was only skin deep anyway, and will steal, cheat, and abase himself utterly to stay alive – if alive it can be called. Nicholas loses his own illusions and learns how to take advantage of the illusions of others. Karl’s viciousness keeps getting him kicked out, wherever he tries to settle. Alois yearns in prison. Jacek is caught in a rebellion of workers. Bernai, Jacek’s uncle and owner of the wrecked Yellow Sailor, looks for loves that have nothing to do with love. Everyone sinks into hallucination or death.
The tone of THE YELLOW SAILOR is blocky and completely affectless. The author has chosen to write almost the entire book in short, stripped down sentences. They ape the thinking of the men whose viewpoint we are seeing, men incapable of more than short-lived impressions. In order to fill in the gaps left by the author’s dabbing brushstrokes, the reader is forced to tap into that mindset, a most unpleasant place to be. It is a relief when Nicholas becomes a merchant for a short time, because the author evidently decided that requires a little more complexity of style. This frees the reader from active participation, and from then on the reading becomes less onerous and even interesting in places.
To say this book is spiritually arid would be to praise it beyond its worth. Bestial would be more like it. Love, community, industry, creativity, are meaningless here. Hope is ground beneath the story’s ragged boot. Failure is numbly embraced. The author wants to tell us this kind of life is bad – this is news?
THE YELLOW SAILOR will have a hard time reaching its target audience, because its target audience can’t read. It will end up being chosen by those who want to go slumming in the pits of the id. His previous book, THE MUSEUM OF LOVE, was nominated for a book prize in Canada. A review quoted on the cover said MUSEUM "taps directly into the unconscious". If it comes from the same viewpoint as THE YELLOW SAILOR, that would be a sad statement about the unconscious.
May 2002 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site
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