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Although he’d never been at sea—yet nobody asked whether he had—and also suffered from aquaphobia, he was hired on as a caboose scullion. Back then there were no labor requirements set down in law, no safety regulations, no union … When asked how old he was, he said seventeen, and yet he was twenty, too old to be a caboose scullion! He hailed from a solidly middle-class background, his father having been a judge, a vocation intended for Viktor as well. But one day he didn’t want to bother with Pythagoras, Plato, and the Punic Wars anymore, he grew fed up with gerunds and geometry, with ablative and algebra, vocative and vocabulary, he’d run away because he wanted to see something of the world that wasn’t in books. Viktor wanted to go on adventures—and not go to seed in the monotonous procession of predictable events. He no longer wanted to stick his nose in books to satisfy some old impotent professors who were supposed to prepare him for university with private instruction so that he might later pass judgment on those who had no money. For him, bourgeois society was a depraved product of sanctimony, nepotism, and corruption. People without ideals, only interested in raising their progeny so that they might one day inherit their parents’ sinecures. Ridiculous. Viktor dreamed of grandiose freedom, of authentic feelings—and of course of what girls had between their legs. A fantasist! A dreamer! Now he was on the Medusa, this wooden broad, standing beside Hosea Thomas, astonished by the superstition of these sea folk.
– You’ll see, the sailor muttered. Davy’ll take us all.
– Take us all, squawked the parrot.
– Davy? Who’s Davy? A singer in a night club?
– You’ll see when the time comes, Hosea laughed, singing: Davy Jones’ ass has got a hole under his slit, and though you think that gold comes out, it’s really only sh…i…pping pitch. Yeah, Davy Jones’ ass has got a hole under his slit … It’s yer first cruise, isn’t it? Hosea took a drag from his pipe and regarded the boy, whom he kind of liked because he was something better, because he came from a stratum of society to which even he’d have liked to belong. Hosea took Viktor’s hands, which felt as limp as wilted leaves of lettuce, squeezed, and laughed. Then he gave him a slap on the back so hard that the boy almost went overboard.
– There’s a first time for everyone, Viktor said, not letting show the pain caused by the handshake and the slap.
– Avoid crossed knives ‘cause they spell strife, never leave a loaf o’ bread lyin’ upside down, else there’ll be an accident at sea, and never, under any circumstances, toss salt overboard. Never! Never board a rechristened ship and mind that you’re not baptized.
– Why? I’ve long been …
– Haha, the sailor gave the youth another slap on the back—again so hard that it almost knocked him over. Y’know how young fry are baptized? You don’t? They’re made to climb out on the lowermost yard, they are, out to the yardarm, and from there to jump into the water.
– What? And if you refuse?
– There’s no refusin’. But don’t worry, they don’t drown. They’re pulled out again by the rope tied around their belly, they are. Once, the rope slipped up and strangled the man, but most get off with scrapes.
– That can’t be healthy. Viktor gazed into that water he feared, thinking, your dick’ll freeze right off in that. Was this supposed to be that grand time? Or was this sailor kidding him? He’d indeed heard about ship boys being sent below decks to feed the keel hogs. Or they had to fetch a key to wind up the compass … But no, this seaman seemed serious.
– Were you also baptized?
– I’d’ve liked to see somebody try, I would’ve. Hosea raised his arm and flexed his biceps. That was some brawn!
Viktor’s eyes grew large. Was this the freedom he’d dreamt of? Just what had he gotten himself into?
– Quit oglin’ that gov’nor’s daughter all the time, or d’you wanna eat her, she’s not for ye, Hosea said, jabbing him in the ribs.
– Wanna eat her? the parrot repeated.
– Leave me be, said Viktor. Until just moments ago today had been the best day of his life, first joining the crew of the Medusa and then the sight of this beauty who, or so he’d imagined, was observing him, too. Not persistently, but whenever he looked her way, she averted her eyes. If only there weren’t this baptism, which simply wouldn’t accord with the image in his dream. He gazed up at the lowermost yard, this spar surely twenty meters in length, at a height of eight or ten meters. The very thought of scrambling out to the yardarm up there caused him to break out in sweats. The sailors in the rigging simply looked like frisky little monkeys scampering about, but Viktor knew he’d lose his footing on the crosstree, the little platform at the end of the lower mast. He was afraid of heights.
Since his escape from home he’d experienced a great deal. But a baptism? Right at the outset all his savings had been stolen by a barkeeper. When he went to the police the following day, it turned out that the publican had already reported him as a bill-dodger. Naturally he could have proven his identity, but then a message would have been sent to his parents, and they’d have brought him, the jurist’s boy, back. Back to the country home of his parents with its thick walls of stone, back to his teachers with their Pythagoras, back to that valet who disposed of litters of kittens, back to a life predetermined. The deceitful barkeeper, in whom Viktor had garrulously confided, knew this. And so he instead acquiesced to the twenty lashes with the cane and the two hours in the pillory. Whoever thinks manners and soft hands offer protection has another thing coming. The judge deemed him a fraud to be punished especially harshly on account of his youth, while the thieving publican was commended. After that, Viktor, torn brutally from his dream world, tagged along with linen weavers, but whenever they found accommodations in their guild houses, he had to seek out a barn. In Nantes he fell into the clutches of recruiters, who got him drunk. He evaded the military with toil and trouble. In La Rochelle he met a sailor who raved to him about the glories of Africa. There, apparently, growing on trees, were nuts as big as one’s head, with sweet milk inside. There were longish yellow fruits that tasted like strawberries, sweet fritters growing on trees, and you could scoop fish from the water as you could chestnuts from the ground elsewhere. On top of this, crayfish, crabs as large as a dinner plate, as many as you could want. Fruits from the monkey-bread tree, however they tasted, turtles with white flesh as creamy as yogurt. Endless beaches, palm trees, sunsets, more impressive than any opera. And not to mention the girls, bare-breasted, skin as dark as blackberries and clothed only in leaves, who wished for nothing more fervently than to serve a young white lad. Black pussies! Africa was a paradise. No one had to work there, the sailor had gushed, no one suffered from hunger or cold, they lay in the sun all day long, had natives bring them roasted fish, glazed chickens, and fruits … He himself would head there immediately if only he could get a ship, he said, making Viktor’s mouth water. And with each glass of wine he treated the sailor to, the fruits grew larger and the girls more licentious.
And so the decision germinated in Viktor, in spite of his phobia, to board a ship in Brest that was off to Africa.
– If you wanna go to Africa, you gotta go to Rochefort, the sailor managed to slur before collapsing, drunk.
Now, only three days later, Viktor Aisen was standing on the forward deck beside Hosea Thomas, sweeping over the iron rings on the foremast and the belaying pins in the fife rail. He saw gulls, their wings splayed broadly, that resembled small flying seals. Impelled solely by the wind, they gained altitude only to plummet down a moment later, boring into the water to dive for fish. Then they’d swim for a while before uttering sharp childlike shrieks and ascending into the air once more. One of these gulls, with dark wingtips, a black spot on its head, and coal-colored eyes with a yellow edge, perched on the bulwark. It looked at Viktor curiously, but was soon shooed away. A sailor sliding down the foremast had nearly struck it.
Viktor watched as it flew off. Then he observed the passengers on the Medusa. Well-dressed gentlemen with tall hats. Officials determined to administer Senegal at a profit. Fine ladies. Craftsmen, officers, lieutenants, a priest named Mayweather on his way to minister to the savages.
– That’s unlucky, Hosea Thomas said, baring his teeth. Think o’ Jonas. Churchmen belong on land. Viktor smiled, not at this nonsense though, but because he sensed a kind of fellowship, realizing that Hosea may see in him a rich little sop, but also had respect for his education.
– Yer well read, know somethin’ about music and art, the sailor said almost shyly. Couldya recommend me some books, couldya? ‘Cause, y’know, when I’m cap’n, I’ll get invited to dinner, and then I don’t wanna stand there like a fool, I don’t.
– Start with Don Quixote, Viktor said. Then Tristram Shandy, you’ll make an impression with those.
– Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Hosea repeated. And what about Linnaeus’ Expedition to Lapland? I started that but didn’t get it. I also started The Maid by Voltaire …
Viktor had meanwhile begun observing Picard’s daughter, who was playing with her young siblings. Then he saw someone fiddling with a peculiar device.
– Adolphe Fummer, a researcher, who hopes to discover new bugs. Hosea had followed Viktor’s gaze. I know that sort, back in Jakarta there were several of those blokes on board. You’ll see: in Senegal they measure darkies, catch bats, and collect mushrooms they then name after themselves.
– After themselves, the parrot repeated. Clew up the fore- and mainsail.
– William Shakespeare! Hush! The bird got a smack on the beak, then shook its head, and stuck out its small gray tongue.
– William Shakespeare?
– Why not? This bird might already be a hundred years old.
– Viktor saw the unfortified mouth of the river widening and carrying the ship out into the open sea. That is, the sea wasn’t actually so very open; before them lay the Île-d’Aix, behind them the Île d’Oléron, and beyond them the Île de Ré. The water was green, and the little wavelets continually slapped the ship’s side. Along the shore were children who saluted like soldiers at the sight of the ships. They had little burlap sacks to hold the crabs they’d caught.
– Brace up the main masthead, shouted the first officer. Veer main topmast staysail.
– Sailors climbed up the shrouds and began fumbling around with the rigging. There was an incredible mess of taut ropes, and yet everything seemed to have its place, as though several spiders had spun interlocking webs. The words “fore topgallant,” “gaff,” “foresail,” and “main yard” could be heard. “Boom sheet,” “bowsprit,” “mizzen mast,” “jib,” and many other terms, too, which Viktor could hardly make heads or tails of.
– Veer out, someone shouted. Brace. Reeve. Tack about. Let go the main sheet.
The sails were still by no means all clapped on, the ship resembling a person half-dressed, when it was turned about off the little Île-d’Aix so that the pilots could leave the Medusa and board their dinghy. Like Newcastle or Hamburg, the Rochefort arsenal was strategically located in the interior where it was protected as much from the tides as from enemies. What’s more, the little bay on the eastward side of the Île-d’Aix, which is pronounced like ex eel, offered shelter from storms, which often blew up suddenly in the Bay of Biscay.
Viktor gazed after the pilots, lost in thought, watching the oar strokes with which they slowly approached the island. For a moment he envied them. Then he turned about and looked out onto the open Atlantic. The water was an endless, flowing mass, perennially undulating back and forth, though revealing not a hint of the ferocity of which it was capable. Nothing could be sensed of the merciless violence dwelling in this spirited, glittering expanse. He saw the remnants of a wall in the middle of the sea. What was that? A sunken city? A church of Neptune? No, attempts had been made to erect a fortification, Fort Boyard, on a sand bank between La Rochelle and Île-d’Aix, but the foundations had kept collapsing such that now only paltry remains attested to that absurd endeavor.
In the meantime almost all sails were set, and the ship gathered speed. It was sailing well by the wind and glided over the water like a trained skater over the ice. The coast receded more and more, shrinking to a thin line; the pilot boat was soon only a tiny dot, almost imperceptible. Viktor felt there was no going back now; his home, France, Europe, and everything his world had been forever sank into memory. Now his dreams became reality. He thought of his parents and sisters, of apple cake and warm milk. Suddenly a great desire for them welled up in him. Tartly sweet apple cake with shortcrust. A tinge of nostalgia seized him. He would spend the next three or four weeks on this ship, and become involved with these people later in Senegal. Theirs were jaded faces, the soldiers’ in particular evincing that they only conceived of life as a series of commands. They had surrendered their wishes and dreams at the barrack gate and exchanged them for meaningless orders, hours-long marches, and mortal boredom. There was this gigantic Asian named Cha-Cha, a tree of a man with thick bulging lips, a broad nose, and a hair style resembling a beet stalk—his whole face looked pushed in. Aside from him, Pampanini, the fat little bug-eyed Genovese with kinky hair who was unable to utter a single sentence without appending Italian curses followed mostly by saints. “Stronzo. Puta. By Saint Ambrosius, may all bees sting him on the ass.” An artilleryman named Tournade inspected the cannons by sticking his arms into them up to the elbow. Before stoppering the muzzles again, he checked the ropes lashing up the mounts, caressed the barrels, and gave his darlings nicknames like “Virgin Skewer,” “Black Sparrow,” or “Old Bitch.” The Jew, Kimmelblatt, wore a red fez and told jokes: “The greenhorn comes to the Rabbi and says, Rabbi, vat should I do, my vife cheats on me with my business manager ….” In addition, “Negroes” with blue-black faces, one with a wife even, a voluptuous creature sheathed in colorful fabric and wearing a uniform jacket that identified her as a sutler.
Even the sailors—they were recognizable not only from their white linen shirts, but also by their wide-legged gait—were coarse boys with few teeth and tanned faces who lived only for that one moment of the day when the rum was dispensed. All of them had chewing tobacco in their mouths and incessantly spat brown goop. A horrid notion rose in Viktor’s mind, the thought of having gotten mixed up with a savage barbarian lot, of having voluntarily repaired to a floating prison. Sweating, cursing people everywhere. One was constantly jostled, pushed aside by someone else. And all around nothing but water, that uncanny element he feared the most.
– So I sold the couch, Kimmelblatt said, and a few people laughed.
Viktor had already seen quite a bit, people who did anything to survive, who sold their children or prostituted themselves for a warm meal. He knew the eyes of those young kittens when they were handed over to the valet. A ritual repeated twice a year. And he also knew the look of that valet when he took receipt of the kittens as though they were old shoes simply to be discarded. The sailors were lacking the jadedness of that servant, but they also lacked the pathos of the kittens. In their eyes was something furtive, something predatory. They were wolves from various packs, jammed into a cage, knowing full well that the ensuing battles for hierarchy would determine their social rank forever (or at least for the eternity of the next few weeks).
The deck swayed to the cadence of the waves, it smelled like the flesh of mussels, and the gulls emitted sharp cries. Then Viktor’s gaze once more fell upon Arétée, the fascinating governor’s daughter—the sight of her nearly blasted away the top of his skull. The girl had drooping eyelids and a bedroom look. Since she’d been aboard, she hadn’t opened her lips a single time except to let out chortling giggles. Now she was standing at the balustrade, stroking her hand over the gold ornamentation. On her face was a trace of sadness—inherited from her father? Viktor didn’t notice it. For him this girl was a bringer of good luck, something that completely incapacitated the synapses of his brain. As long as a creature like this was aboard, the enterprise was under a lucky star. Truly, today was a red-letter day. Today, on the 17th of June, 1816, he had seen this improbable creature for the first time. His eyes were like a fishing line that had gotten snagged in a sweater and kept tugging at it. This she likely sensed, and fled, stepping behind the mighty mizzen mast encircled by iron hoops. Then Viktor’s attention fell upon the disheveled, graying hair of that researcher with funny eyes who was apparently talking to himself. Beside him was someone else, too, a meaty face with alert eyes. Yellow uniform coat, three-cornered hat. Who was that? An officer’s cadet? The man paced the length of the crew, pinching this one’s cheeks, looking in the next one’s mouth, examining a third man’s eyes, patting a fourth on the temple, requesting a fifth stick out his tongue.
– Savigny, the ship’s assistant surgeon, Hosea Thomas grumbled. You’d better keep out o’ his sight, lest you lie under the knife.
– Lie under the knife, William Shakespeare repeated.
– They’ve got to hang a bell around that man like a leper so no one bumps into him, they do.
Indeed, now that nothing more could be seen of the roadstead or Josephine, Savigny had since proceeded to inspect the crew. He asked the sailors about elevated temperatures, ordered everyone to report immediately at the first sign of venereal disease, and pointed out the glass case hanging by the ladderway, posted in which was a list of doctors in the most varied harbor towns who would treat syphilis for free. What’s more, no one should omit the ration of lemon juice intended for him; thanks to the English they had knowledge of its good effect in the battle against scurvy. The “lime-juicers” had always polished their brass with lemon juice and had stumbled upon its healthful influence rather coincidentally.
– And if it should occur to any of you layabouts to drink an elixir of tobacco to be admitted to sick bay with stomach cramps, then may God have mercy on you.
Savigny had a pudgy face, full lips, and red cheeks. He resembled more a barkeeper or a vintner than a doctor. And yet an aura emanated, the radiance of an idealist, while his assistant, a bald-headed man with a protruding belly and lusterless eyes, came off as completely disinterested.
– The doctor looks friendly, Viktor adjudged.
– That’s deceivin’, Hector. That’s deceivin’.
– Viktor! My name is Viktor.
– Surgeons make no distinction in treatin’ animals or people, Hosea said, neglecting to react to him. If he thinks it right, Hector, he’ll tie ye up and cut off yer leg. Why else d’you think there are so many wooden legs? I’s there when they sliced open that scarface’s head—he pointed to the ugly, shorn person covered in pock marks (meaning: the man whose belly Picard had already seen)—to surgically remove a bullet. They lifted off the plate o’ his skull; the stuff underneath looked like cold cassoulet.
– Cassoulet, William Shakespeare affirmed. Like bean goulash.
– Maybe what we consider thinkin’ is nothin’ more than overcooked onions with beans. When you slice open a skull …
– The captain would never allow something like that, said Viktor, who had grown pale and had no desire to hear about the interior life of someone’s head. Wasn’t it enough that they wanted to baptize him? Did they also have to cut open his skull? Where was the commandant anyway?
– Didn’t deign to show up. Hosea laughed. Probably diarrhea, sittin’ in his officer’s privy, shittin’ his soul onto his silk stockings. A pretty captain. Have y’seen him, this Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys? Hosea dwelt on the individual syllables of that long name, which he uttered with a hint of contempt. A fool in disguise with a ribbon ‘round his neck, puffy sleeves, and red ears, which is a sure sign of indigestion. It’s said he hasn’t captained a ship in twenty years, this Hugo. In Rochefort there were rumors he was a royal sympathizer, one o’ them who fled to England in exile when the Revolution broke out. A schemer who waited twenty-seven years for the royalists to return to power. And now, since the Revolution and Napoleon have sorted themselves out, since France is ruled by a Bourbon again, he bombarded the king’s officials with petitions and letters of request ‘til they transferred command of this fleet to him. Not a good sign. He won’t prevail, he won’t. Y’know why? ‘Cause he don’t have any balls. Such a one as he can admire himself in the mirror for hours, but he can’t command a ship, he can’t. He can stew about strategies, write letters, and spin intrigues, but responsibility? That one’s vain and soft as boiled fruit, he is.
– But there are officers who can safely command a ship?
– Did y’see them? Did ye? Jacobins! Steeled in naval battles! They’ve had glowin’ cannonballs hurtle past their heads. From a tollkeeper who’s not learned since childhood to do anything but pose in front of the mirror, powder himself, and straighten his wig … they’ll not take orders from such a mollycoddle. You’ll see, that’ll cause trouble, it will. Davy’s already rubbin’ his hands.
From Das Floß der Medusa. Roman nach einer wahren Begebenheit. Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Wien, 2017.