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Nonfiction in Brief

HER NAME TITANIC The Untold Story of the Sinking & Finding of the Unsinkable Ship by Charles Pellegrino (McGraw-Hill: $18.95)

January 15, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

Is there really, as the subtitle suggests, a story left untold? Survivors of the unsinkable ship's sinking have written myriad you-are-there accounts, recalling the blue iceberg that suddenly emerged from the fog and the band that played cheery ragtime as the ship slid down under. These accounts only tell part of the story, however, for the disaster, coming in an age when American culture was sacralizing technology, also was a warning that man was still no match for nature.

Pellegrino, a marine archeologist who likes to apply the lessons of his field to astronomy, suggests that he was similarly sobered by this realization while diving in 1985 and '86 with Robert Ballard's Argo Expedition, which first discovered the Titanic wreck. Pellegrino's attempt to retell the Titanic story as a cautionary parable about the dangers of placing too much faith in technology is only partly successful, however, for he himself never wavers from a quasi-religious faith in science and technology.

Pellegrino does suggest the basis for an interesting personal story. While on the Argo Expedition, he saw a close friend "descend irretrievably into cocaine addiction." In Pellegrino's mind, the ship's and his friend's stories soon became one: "Watching the Titanic die was, to me, like the peculiar horror of watching someone very young and beautiful and full of power and life turning destructively against herself and everyone around her." Pellegrino never again mentions his friend, though, or elaborates on his feelings of loss.

Still, "Her Name Titanic" is a captivating work, for Ballard and Pellegrino are both visionary, inspired, eccentric scientists. Submerged in their little diving capsule, they explain why the Titanic wreck had been so strangely deformed (a funnel of water followed the ship to the ocean bottom, pounding it with the force of a tidal wave) and discuss how deep ocean waters can help answer lingering questions about life on other planets: Venus, they conclude at one point, "makes hell look like Club Med."

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