Tuesday, May 14, 2019

32. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Whew, this was a novel!  I picked it up at Chainon basically just because it looked old.  I did see it was a bunch of people on a ship and it takes place just before the start of WWII so that also piqued my interest.  But damn, this was almost 500 pages of small typeface with 3 chapters!  Plus, it's the NBA playoffs so my reading time is limited.  Excuses, excuses, but I made it through.

The story is about a second-rate German passenger ship leaving Mexico in 1939 taking a motley group of weird expats back to Europe.  There is also a large group of Spanish sugar cane workers in steerage, sent back home after their industry collapsed in Mexico.  There are so many characters that the book has and needs not only a roster at the beginning but a list of cabins and who is in them.  Most of the first class passengers are German, Swiss and Swedish, but there are four Americans (an unmarried and tortured couple and an angry engineer from Texas and a divorcee), several upper class Mexicans, a Spanish dance troupe, Cuban medical students and a lone Jew.  They all have their own storylines and they overlap.  The larger narrative is how the Spanish dance troupe sows chaos on the ship, ostensibly for their own material gains as they are thieves, pimps and prostitutes and just general scammers, but also with a general cultural contempt for the Teutonic uptightness of the Germans.  They have two children who are just totally wild, constantly trying to throw things and animals overboard, stealing stuff, doing childish incest in the lifeboats and generally horrifying the "civilized" upper class Europeans.

Racism is ubiquitous.  The Germans at the captain's table talk freely of eugenics and purification of society.  One of the storylines is a young German man of good social and genetic standing who is returning to his Jewish wife.  The discovery of that fact causes a big scandal and he is forced to sit with the lone Jew (whom he despises).  Really, there is not a single likable character in this book, though they are all interesting.  This is a savage, scathing portrayal of Western society at this time.  I think I would have enjoyed it more had it not been written in 1945.  It feels every so slightly like there is a bit of hindsight schadenfreude going on here and I wonder how this book would have actually been written before the war started.  It is based on Porter's own experience on an ocean liner, so I am not questioning the authenticity of the portrayal overall. It is just a bit too firm and consistent in its portrayal of the Germans and their view utopian view of their Fatherland.

If there is a climax, it is the second to last night before they finally arrive in Europe and the dance troupe hosts a party which gets out of hand.  Some of the conflicts and desires that have been brewing across the Atlantic come to fruition.  Nothing particularly new is revealed about the characters, for whom the reader has already developed a pretty solid distaste.  They have been well developed, though and there is nothing false or exaggerated about their narratives end.  Each character leaves at the various stops in Spain, France and England with the final destination in Germany. 

Not mindblowing, but an interesting portrait of a group of people at a very specific time in 20th century history.  Porter herself led quite an interesting life and you wonder how much of her is in the sophisticated, self-possessed and slightly lost divorcee character, Mrs. Treadwell.

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