Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Never-ending boat trip
Katherine Anne Porter is best known as a writer of short stories and essays, but she did publish one novel, Ship of Fools, in 1962. I’ve read all of Porter’s stories and essays, and consider myself a fan of her work, though with some reservations. In books like Flowering Judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Porter has proven herself a master of short fiction, but her prodigious talents do not translate well to the long form, as evidenced by this arduous and frustrating test of patience.

The title of the book is not merely an expression, but rather a literal representation of the novel’s contents. The story takes place in 1931 on a German passenger liner traveling from Veracruz, Mexico to various ports in Europe; its final destination being Bremerhaven. Porter based the novel on an actual voyage she took that year from and to those ports of call. An ensemble cast of characters of various nationalities and backgrounds comprises the passenger list, and the novel is essentially a series of scenes detailing the interactions between this disparate company of travelers thrown together into forced proximity by a sheer coincidence of booking. Throughout the novel, Porter’s prose is impeccable and her insight into human behavior authentic and perspicacious. Each succeeding vignette inspires the reader to remark, “What a beautifully rendered scene!” but regrettably in sum total they don’t add up to anything but a trying bore. Really only two events of note occur over the entire voyage form the New World to the Old. The rest is just overindulgent description. Perhaps Porter’s intention was to capture the relentless tedium and frustrating lack of privacy of nautical transatlantic travel. If so, she has succeeded, but such success does not translate into enjoyable or meaningful reading.

Despite the “Cast of Characters” list at the front of the book, it’s difficult to even tell many of the characters apart. There’s little to distinguish one German Frau from another. Not a single likeable character exists on the entire boat. The smart ones are all evil; the nice ones are all stupid. Each is defined by his or her faults. Prejudice is a recurring theme in the book, and everyone on the ship proves themselves a bigot in one way or another. Race, religion, sex, class, nationality—all are grounds for social warfare in these international waters. Not surprisingly for this time period, anti-Semitism is rampant, and takes a prominent role in the tenuous plot. Porter does a fine job of depicting all these various shades of hate, but to what end? What’s even more baffling is how Porter displays her own prejudices—whether intentionally or inadvertently is unclear. Although she lived in Mexico for a few years and professed a love for the country and its people, her depictions of Mexicans and other Hispanic persons is far from flattering. The Mexican, Cuban, and Spanish characters in the book are all dancers, prostitutes, or drunks. While the Germans and Americans all have backstories complete with degrees and careers, the Hispanic characters don’t even get last names.

As I said earlier, I’m an admirer of Porter, and don’t relish bashing her work. Having spent some time in Veracruz, I enjoyed the book’s opening passages and looked forward to embarkation with enthusiasm. Perhaps, however, I was too optimistic for a satisfying plot. What I got instead was the modernist description-for-description’s-sake approach in which every emotional inkling merits scores of pages. Despite all the navel-gazing, no one learns anything. No one changes. By all means, spare yourself this pointless and unpleasant voyage.
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