Peter Fitzsimons

Batavia

 

Have you ever found yourself enjoying a new version of an old song? Or maybe a new song that samples an old one. And then you realise after a bit that the only bit of the ‘new’ song that you’re enjoying ... is the sample.

 

Hats off to Fitzsimons for wanting to bring this amazing story to light. It *is* an amazing story (perhaps up there with the incredible story of the mutiny on the Bounty, and the amazing consequences of Bligh’s longboat journey, and the Pitcairn castaways), and well worth hearing. Fitzsimons backs safe horses – Kokoda, Tobruk, Kingsford Smith – these titles hopefully selling themselves. Ideal Christmas presents. And a story like the ‘Batavia’ – well, as the cover shouts out, “Betrayal. Shipwreck. Murder. Sexual Slavery. Courage.” And all in Australian history: how can he lose? He probably didn’t. This was another canny choice, and Fitzsimons has the discipline to package these appallingly fascinating historical events into a very saleable book.

 

Yet I found mid way through the book that the only thing I was enjoying was the plot – the bits of history. Annoying and distracting were Fitzsimons’ pantomime characters and his expression, always surfing on the edge of cliché. Oh, and his bizarre choice of present tense. The language doesn’t help his aim of making the events immediate and real, we’re actually distanced by the flowery circumlocution. To take a paragraph pretty much at random:

...Jeronimus has long ago learned in his amorous career that, when pursuing a woman, even a seemingly unattainable one, it is amazing how opportunities sometimes present themselves, once circumstances have changed. Quite how the circumstances might change on this journey, he knows not, but there remains a good six months...

Who talks in this formalised way? Who is impressed by the glib euphemism of ‘amorous career’, or the archaic construction of, ‘he knows not’? This is far more about saying, “Look at me, I’m writing,” taking attention away from the story (much as poor actors or musicians make you think, “Look at them, they’re acting/playing,” whereas when great performers are on stage – you forget you’re watching anyone and are just taken in to the character or the song). It’s joining with the reader to condescendingly look down on the quaint historical figures. Fitzsimons seems to have found his evocations of the characters wearisome himself, because most of the time he didn’t even create scenes so much as summaries: we don’t get the dialogue of the plotters or the conversation in the ‘Great Cabin’, we don’t see friendships or enmities built bit by bit – rather we’re told that plots are being hatched, that conversations are being had, that friendships are emerging. We pause for chunks of (historically interesting) detail of diet or practise or boat nomenclature, but these are not incorporated into a story any more than a non-fictional account would incorporate this information.

 

I realise I’m much harder to please in High Seas stories since being bowled over by the consistently wonderful quality of O’Brian’s superlative Aubrey/Maturin series (I’m about halfway through and am deliberately measuring out the pleasure of each remaining book). But these are just chalk and cheese.

 

Spoilers.

 

I’ve bailed (to grab some of Fitzsimons’ present tense) with Jeronimous yet to make his move on the survivors, and Jacobsz and Pelsaert still desperate for water travelling northwards up the coast of Western Australia. I don’t quite know how he’ll manage it, but I’m sure Fitzsimons will somehow manage to dull the utterly gripping events of the coming days. They’re fascinating enough on their own to still sell the book, but that’s a world away from evocatively taking us there.

 

It is possible to do a new version of a song that is as good as the original. Or even to better it. I’d be open to a contemporary rewrite of Bernal Diaz’ incredible, ‘The Conquest of New Spain,’ because the writing itself is awful. But the events of Cortez campaign, and the fact that Diaz was actually there, mean his bad writing is something you can excuse. But that’s not what’s going on here: Fitzsimons has to add a deal more style and craft to the original events to justify not merely publishing a non-fiction account, incorporating telling quotes from original sources.

 

I suspect you would be better off reading a one of Fitzsimons’ sources that he recommends highly: Michael Dash’s ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’, although reviews suggest some sensationalism, as does the subtitle: ‘The true story of a mad heretic that led history’s bloodiest mutiny’! The heretic element is titillating but speculative, and mutiny is perhaps simply overdressing mere piracy: “Food is short. Kill the men and children, rape the women,” is awful, but hardly singular. A tough gig for these authors – they can’t just write history, they are trying to write history to sell.

 

October 2012