Once again I chose this week's short story from American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks. Many of the authors included in this anthology are completely new to me, so I've been flipping through the volume and choosing the stories at random. Although I've only read a couple I think it is proving to be an excellent selection of stories and 'masterpieces' is probably not an exaggeration.
I've never read any of Mark Helprin's work, but I was drawn to his story, "Letters from the Samantha", because it is told in the format of letters from the ship's captain. A story told via letters and taking place on a ship, this should be a nice adventure, I thought. Perfect Sunday reading. I suppose it could be read as just an tale of adventure, but there was most definitely more to it. Stories like this scream to be read in a group and discussed, but it'll give me something to think about over the course of the week.
The story consists of six letters written by Samson Low between August 20, 1909 and September 3, 1909. The reader is told:
"These letters were recovered in good condition from the vault of the sunken Samantha, an iron-hulled sailing ship of one thousand tons, built in Scotland in 1879 and wrecked during the First World War in the Persian Gulf off Basra."
Samson Low details his experiences, which began off the coast of Madagascar, and the decisions he makes after surviving a monsoon intact, decisions which he will come to regret. The crew sighted a tornado on land, which quickly veered off to sea. It was exciting for the crew to be so close to such a fierce spectacle of nature. Even Low himself said, "I confess that I have wished to be completely taken up by such a thing, to be lifted into the clouds, arms and legs pinned in the stream". It is feared that the ship will indeed be picked up by the wind, but in the end it will change directions, missing them. When the storm was over, and they were piloting themselves through the mess, they spot a clump of vegetation and "floating upon it was a large monkey, bolt upright and dignified". Impulsively Low offers the end of a boat hook and brings the animal on board. Although he instantly regrets his action, "this creature we have today removed from the sea is like a man".
Spoiler alert from here on out, in case you've not read this yet.
The monkey climbs up to the top of the rigging and stays there. The captain considers throwing him overboard, but he won't come down, as the ship sails farther and farther away from its island. Eventually a raft is designed, and the crew splits into two--one group wanting to send him off in the raft when they get close enough to land, and the rest wishing to shoot him down from the rigging, as the screeching noises the animal makes unnerves the men and terrifies them. Low sides with the group who wishes to cast him afloat, knowing he would have to be the one to shoot the animal and has no desire to do so. Eventually hunger will tempt the animal down, somehow he's much less fearsome, hunched down, walking nearly on all four limbs, half the men's heights and "no more frightening than a hound". He becomes almost docile and a bit of a plaything to the crew who all stroll about with him on deck. As the days pass the novelty of having such an animal in close quarters wears off, as the men are returning home. Two of the crew will remove the manacles from the animal and dump the raft overboard, not wanting to set the ape adrift to what appears to be an inhospitable land. The captain is angered and decides at some point he can just throw the ape overboard. The men's attitudes quickly change. They forget about the ape, who sits listlessly in the heat and "looks like an old man, neutral to the world". The captain thinks only of keeping the crew under control. In the end he strangles the animal and pitches him over the side, "where he quickly sank".
I tried to look for some literary criticism about this story, but I didn't really come up with much online. One reviewer compared Helprin's story to the work of Melville and Conrad, two authors I've not read since high school (and then only shorter works). This makes me think the story must be full of symbolism or perhaps the author is trying to make a point about Empire/colonialism, or at the very least man's guilt and his inhumanity towards others (and I hesitate to just limit it to animals, since over and over the ape is compared to a man). It's rather telling that the story ends thus:
"Some of the crew have begun to talk about him as if he were about to be canonized. Others see him as evil. I assembled them as the coasts began to close on Suez and the top of the sea was white and still. I made my views clear, for in years of command and a life on the sea I have leaned much. I felt confident of what I told them."
"He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going. I was neither right nor wrong in bringing him aboard (though it was indeed incorrect) or in what I later did. We must get on with the ship's business. He does not stand for man. He stands for nothing. He was an ape, simian and lean, half sensible. He came on board, and now he is gone."
I think Samson Low protests too much. Or he's trying to convince himself? Low says it himself, though, when it comes to ship's business, not much else matters. Perhaps that's the biggest truth of the story.