Thursday, September 21, 2006

Read: "The Wreck of the Batavia: a true story" by Simon Leys

Read: The Wreck of the Batavia: a true story by Simon Leys, 2006 (US edition), 1560258217.

A curious book. Leys spent 18 years collecting information to write a book on the wreck of the Batavia in 1629 on coastal islands off Australia. In the foreword he writes that he worked very slowly and, "From time to time, I learned that some new book had been published on my topic - invariably sending me into a cold sweat - and each time, I would rush to get a copy of it." Finding that each book "missed the target" Leys would relax and continue to dawdle. "Then came Mike Dash. With his Batavia's Graveyard, published in 2002, this author hit the bull's eye and left me nothing more to say."

So, right from the start, Leys tells us, 'don't read this, buy Dash's book.' Wreck numbers 110 pages and Leys spends just 59 of those giving a brief account of the Batavia's maiden voyage, wreck and aftermath. The aftermath is the real story. Led by a charismatic sociopath, and failed apothecary, named Jeronimus Cornelisz, most of the surviving 180 crew and passengers were murdered in a bizarre mutiny plot begun at sea. I guess I'll have to read the Dash book to learn all the extra details.

The second half of the 110 pages is devoted to Leys' work on a fishing boat in Breton, France. One of only a dozen commercial, sail powered vessels left in 1958, Leys signed on for a month long trip during a school break.

Both halves are well written and kept my interest. But, the two disjointed and unrelated halves make Wreck a curious item and both read like long magazine articles. I liked it.

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