Graeme Lay, James Cook's New World: a novel.
Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), Auckland, 2014. ISBN 9781775540410. Paperback, 318 pp., A$30/ NZ$37
This is the second of a trilogy of novels by New Zealand author Graeme Lay fictionalising the life of James Cook. The first volume, The Secret Life of James Cook (2013), tells the story of Cook's early career and family life, and of his first circumnavigation in 1768-71, while the third volume, James Cook's Lost World (2015), tells the story of his third voyage to the Pacific, ending in his death in Hawaii.
James Cook's New World is written in the vein of early twentieth century adventure novels, and while skulduggery at home and dangers and discoveries abroad make for a well-paced and generally wellwritten novel which closely follows the historical record, Lay's novel nonetheless fails on many other levels.
For one, Lay's characters are terribly one-dimensional. In the early parts of the novel, Joseph Banks, the naturalist, is portrayed as nothing but a thorn in Cook's side, and his replacement on the voyage, the Prussian Johann Forster, fills a similar narrative role, being portrayed as a grumpy, demanding, and censorious Bible-thumper. Cook himself is portrayed as paragon of English virtue, diligent and disciplined, and not one to make or tolerate mistakes. He severely chastises Furneaux, Captain of the Adventure, for failing to insist that his crew eat the anti-scorbutics, and he punishes any transgressions by his crew, not least against native islanders. While tolerant of his men's sexual intercourse with indigenous women, he himself stays faithful to his wife, despite temptations. The only real instance of self-doubt comes when Cook admits to his wife in one of his (fictitious) journal entries that he is feeling melancholy on account of his failure to have discovered and claimed any new lands for the Crown.
These journal entries, while intended to add a first person insight into Cook the man, are unfortunately too contrived, as Lay always employs them to advance the narrative as well, and they never quite ring true stylistically. What also grates at times is when the period detail of Lay's novel lacks credibility, such as when Cook and his wife visit St James' Palace to meet George III, who walks up to them followed by a "secretary [...] bearing a circular silver tray on which was a large white envelope". The envelope, which is handed to Cook by the King, contains the "Royal Warrant", signed by the King himself and all his Sea Lords, stating that Cook, in the King's words "shall henceforth hold the rank of Captain James Cook". For one, Cook was at that time promoted to 'Master and Commander', not 'Captain' and, for another, envelopes were not then in use.
More significantly, what Lay's novel noticeably lacks is any critical engagement with the colonial endeavour. This is noticeable, for one, with regard to the regular naming by Cook of islands, bays, and other topological features, often in full knowledge of indigenous names. When the Resolution first sights the Marquesas Islands, Cook decides to name the first of these islands after Able Seaman Hood. Told by one of his officers that the island is already named on charts as San Pedro, Lay has Cook reply: "That was 179 years ago, Cooper. It is my prerogative to rename it after an Englishman." I doubt that Lay intended the scene to be as comical as it turned out.
While the Pacific islanders encountered by Cook are generally portrayed sympathetically by Lay, the issue of cannibalism is treated by him as unproblematic, although scholars have made a persuasive case that cannibalism was largely a European idea based on a misunderstanding of certain mortuary rites. Aside from a notorious incident in which Cook offers pieces of broiled human cheeks to a Maori visiting the Resolution, Lay's novel includes a lengthy retelling of the murder of ten crew of the Adventure near Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand, which is evidently based on an account by the ship's astronomer, William Bayly. Whereas Bayly simply writes that "our People found a great many baskets of human flesh quite hot from the fire", in Lay's version there came from the baskets "the aroma of freshly cooked food--chunks of earth baked meat and fern root." Only for Lay do the dismembered and burnt body parts of slain enemies, a common practice, become cooked food. Rather than skewing his narrative in this way, Lay could have used the book's acknowledgements, which contain references to the many sources he used, to address controversial issues which are perhaps difficult to address within the narrative itself, such as whether cannibalism was genuinely practiced by Pacific islanders. In that regard, Lay could have followed what is by now good practice for historical novelists, namely to address the degree to which they have departed from the historical record and to address any contentious issues.
Intriguingly Lay addresses issue of authorship and distortion towards the end of his novel, when the English Consul at Cape Town presents Cook with the three volumes of Hawkesworth's 'account' of Cook's 1768-71 voyage. Incensed by what he suspects to be a distortion of the truth, Cook reads volumes two and three in a single afternoon (no mean feat) and, in disgust, blows them to smithereens with a musket. "This fellow Hawkesworth had evidently been given his [Cook's] journals and had used them to write his own account of Endeavour's voyage. Was that not highly presumptuous? [...] The man was an imposter, his version of the voyage mostly fiction". Is the irony deliberate? Lay admits in his acknowledgements, that his novel is "primarily a work of fiction", although it has a "factual framework", and it is to Lay's credit, that the factual framework is generally solid. However, the interested reader may be better served by one or other of the many works of non-fiction listed by Lay in his acknowledgements.
Lastly, and pertaining solely to the publisher's presentation of Lay's novel, readers of this journal should be particularly troubled by the poor layout of a double-page world map showing the route taking by Cook during his 1772-75 voyage. The map is centred on the New Hebrides, but with an inadequate gutter width, which makes several place names illegible, and parts of New Zealand's South Island invisible. This could have been avoided if the map had been centred on Sri Lanka. Moreover, many places mentioned in the novel are not shown or only shown by a different name (Otaheite, for example, though mentioned frequently, is only shown as Tahiti). An inset map showing the area between Australia and Easter Island in greater detail would also have been helpful.
Alexander Hugo Schulenburg FRAI FRHistS
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|Author:||Schulenburg, Alexander Hugo|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2015|
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