Monday, January 25, 2021

the last book I read

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Lemuel Gulliver is a ship's surgeon, travelling the world dispensing late-17th-century medical wisdom and treatment, which probably just amounts to some leeches, the odd mustard poultice and a bit of trepanning. He is also, as we will see as the book goes on, somewhat accident-prone in terms of what happens on his various sea voyages, or the ones he undertakes during the course of the story related here anyway. I expect he would offer up in his defence twenty-odd years of previous trouble-free sailing where he didn't at any point suffer shipwreck, piracy, mutiny etc. and then wash up on the shores of an undiscovered country populated by giant exploding badgers, and fair enough, I suppose. 

Anyway, we're getting slightly ahead of ourselves here. Gulliver's first voyage starts uneventfully enough, but in the Indian Ocean the ship, her crew already depleted by sickness (which the ship's surgeon, you will note, hasn't been able to do much about) is swept onto rocks and sinks. Gulliver is fortunate enough to wash up on land, and, exhausted by his swimming efforts, lies down on a grassy patch for a nap. 

When he awakes, he finds himself unable to move on account of being securely guy-roped to the ground by a gazillion tiny cables, tended by a gazillion tiny people, no larger than his thumb. Once he and his captors have managed to make themselves understood to each other, after a fashion (since they speak different languages), his captors agree to free him on the understanding he doesn't go on a big stompy rampage and crush them like ants. 

Once Gulliver (who, as luck would have it, has a pretty remarkable gift for languages) and his captors have been able to make themselves understood to each other, some details emerge: these are the Lilliputians, basically people like Gulliver but on a smaller scale, and with the same nonsensical inter-personal and inter-nation wranglings. Lilliputian society is riven between the two main political parties whose main disagreements are over the appropriate height of shoe-heels and which end to crack your breakfast egg in the mornings. Similar absurd disagreements have caused a long-running feud, occasionally erupting into open warfare, with the neighbouring island of Blefuscu.

Give the Lilliputians their due, though, they do their best to accommodate Gulliver's vast bulk, the vast bulk of his appetite for food and drink, and the vast bulk of his resulting faecal deposits, which must be something of a health hazard. Relations only cool when Gulliver refuses to use his enormous comparative size to crush the puny Blefuscudians and arrange their enslavement by the Lilliputian emperor, and then later when he puts out a fire in the royal palace by pissing on it, and, in an equally real sense, his chips. Under imminent sentence of death, he escapes to Blefuscu, where he fortuitously happens upon the remains of a normal-sized boat which he is able to make seaworthy and use to escape.

And so the pattern is set for subsequent voyages: Gulliver accepts a job on a ship sailing from Britain, some calamity occurs and he is separated from the ship and its crew, he washes up in an unknown and undocumented land, has some crazy adventues, and contrives to escape and return home.

Sure enough, after his return to England, reunion with his wife and family, acceptance of a new job on a new ship, and setting off on a new journey, things go pear-shaped again. After being blown off course and sighting an unknown land mass, Gulliver is sent ashore with a landing party, from whom he quickly becomes separated (and who he never sees again). Soon he is captured by a giant (roughly the same size relative to him as he was to the Lilliputians) and carried off to a local farmer's house. Luckily he is left in the care of the farmer's daughter, who takes a shine to him and has a little wooden house made for him which he is transported around in. 

This, it transpires, is the land of Brobdingnag, where people are just like you and me except for being seventy-foot behemoths. Gulliver and his young protector Glumdalclitch soon attract the attention of the ruling classes and are brought before the king, who desires to know more about Gulliver and the land of tiny people whence he came. Gulliver describes English life and politics at some length and he and the King find some minor differences of doctrine and procedure to express mutual bafflement over. But in a land of giants Gulliver is in a state of near-constant peril, and after a near-miss with a mischievous monkey who grabs and runs off with him, Gulliver's wooden box is picked up by a bird of prey who then drops it in the sea. After drifting for a while the box is picked up by a regular human-sized ship, lashed to its side, and Gulliver is rescued. 

Unchastened by his latest brush with death, and after a brief period of recovery at home in England, Gulliver soon sets off again. This latest sea voyage is curtailed by an attack by pirates, who maroon Gulliver on some rocks, from where he is eventually rescued by the inhabitants of a bizarre flying island. This is the island of Laputa, which houses the ruling classes of the regular land-based island of Balnibarbi. A rum lot, to be sure, given to enforcing their will on the lower (literally) orders by hovering the island over them and blocking out the sun, or in extreme cases dropping the island on top of them and squashing them into strawberry jam. When Gulliver descends to Balnibarbi and has a scout around he finds it populated by an equally strange group of "scientists" engaged in a hare-brained selection of projects to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and the like. Once again he contrives to make his excuses and leave, and makes his way via the lands of Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib, both of whom, in different ways, have power over life and death, without it really making anybody very happy, and thence to Japan, from where he is able to find passage back to England.

Finally, he undertakes another voyage, this time as captain, despite his dismal recent track record of actually keeping ships afloat or remaining on board for any length of time. Sure enough, barely have they set off than the crew mutinies and sets him ashore on a remote island. This island turns out to be populated by a race of intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms. These guys keep as livestock a race of hairy-arsed humanoid animals called Yahoos, who are generally dim, quarrelsome and troublesome. Assuming Gulliver to be a slightly less noisy and hairy Yahoo, they are suspicious of him at first, but grow to respect his intelligence and relatively civilised ways. As always Gulliver picks up the language quickly and is soon neighing away like he's just won the Grand National. 

In contrast with his reserve towards the inhabitants of all the other lands he has visited, Gulliver embraces Houyhnhnm society wholeheartedly, the Houyhnhnms having no concept of lying or deceit. Gulliver decides that he would be quite happy to live out his days alongside his Houyhnhnm "master", but is thwarted by a change in the political climate: it is decided that the Yahoos should be culled, as they're generally more trouble than they're worth, and despite Gulliver's erudition he is still generally regarded as a shaven Yahoo. So his master offers him an ultimatum: construct one of these "boats" of which you speak and use it to make good your escape, or suffer castration and/or death. Gulliver reluctantly chooses option A and sets out across the ocean, and, as is his habit, is almost immediately rescued by a Portuguese ship and returned, eventually, to England. Reunited with his wife and family, Gulliver retires to private life, leaving only the manuscript of his memoirs with a sympathetic publisher and the occasional urge to munch through a trough-full of oats and fall awkwardly jumping a hedge and have to be put down.

So obviously while this is a rollicking adventure story it is also your actual Satire, though the exact targets of the various sections are probably less clear now than in 1726 when it was first published (the oldest book on this list so far, beating Fanny Hill into second place). It is generally accepted that Lilliput and Blefuscu are meant to be England and France, and pretty clearly the various science-y buffoons in part 3 are meant to represent the Royal Society and its various luminaries (Isaac Newton, for instance, died around the time of the book's publication, possibly of shame, possibly not). I am in general agreement with George Orwell (and this essay in particular) that there is an odd shift of tone in part 4 and that Gulliver's extreme reverence for Houyhnhnm society is odd given how totalitarian and, more importantly, deadly dull it is. I mean, never mind the fundamental implausibility of these creatures being able to construct even rudimentary buildings without the benefit of opposable thumbs. Yeah, good luck holding that hammer, losers. 

It doesn't really matter if you can't immediately identify who the King of Brobdingnag is meant to be a satirical version of, though, as you can still relish the adventure anyway. It's no surprise that most adaptations of the book (and there have been many) only feature the first two sections (Lilliput and Brobdingnag) as these have a pleasing mirror structure whereas section 3 of the book is a bit unfocused and section 4 is just a lot of talking horses (a bit of a challenge pre-CGI). It's all good fun, though; what is also fun is looking at the original maps included in the text and trying to work out which actual locations the fictional kingdoms are meant to be near.

Lilliput seems to occupy some of the area actually occupied by western Australia, Brobdingnag seems to be a massive peninsula attached to the west coast of North America, the various kingdoms described in part 3 are an archipelago east of Japan and the land of the Houyhnhnms is south of Australia. I draw your attention to previous book/map posts herehere and here

The other obvious point to make about Gulliver's Travels is its enduring influence on other, subsequent works of speculative fiction. One can recognise from many other places the recurring theme of stranger in a strange land trying to get his head around strange creatures with strange cultural habits and eventually concluding, hey, are these strange cultural habits really any stranger than our own, when you think about it, and also, hey, deep down these guys are really just regular guys like us, scale factors and the odd extra limb aside. The general tone of the last section whereby a human, all puffed-up with his own importance and imagined status as the pinnacle of civilisation, strays into the domain of another species which turns out to be far in advance of our own culturally and regards us as little more than partly-domesticated savages, is a common theme from elsewhere as well. It's also hard to read the last section without realising that it would only take a very small twist to a couple of plot points to turn it into Planet Of The Apes

No comments: