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Command of Sea and Self : IN THE SPARROW HILLS: By Emile Capouya : (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: $19.95; 264 pp.)

April 18, 1993|RICHARD EDER

Each religion that unfurls its supernatural beliefs in the natural world has its own particular set of difficulties; and these may alter from century to century. With Christianity, for instance, the main difficulty nowadays may not be science or the religion of consumerism, but the notion of personal salvation. Can an East Coaster ride the subway at 6 p.m. and believe that God plans to resurrect each of the anonymous stomachs jammed into his own? Can a West Coaster sit on the rush-hour freeways and believe something similar?

Every once in a while, a book helps. Not that Emile Capouya, author of this part-fictional, part-confessional memoir, writes from a particularly religious point of view. If anything, he is in a Stoic line going back to Epictetus and Seneca.

The 67-year life that he contemplates, in a mixture of history and invention, has nothing particularly remarkable about it. We read of a man who worked successively as a merchant seaman, a soldier, a businessman and a publisher, who loves to read and reflect, and who is married to a woman who overcame a long, disabling illness. An Easterner, he could be any one of those anonymous overcoated bulks that oppress our human dignities on the rush-hour subway or, as he tells us, the bus.

Yet "In the Sparrow Hills" makes him utterly distinct, in the only way a person--as against a stone or a washing-machine--can be distinct, that is: unknowable, elusive and unfinished. Capouya, and I shall not try to distinguish what is fiction in his self-portrait, is analytical and unsparing. He thoroughly encircles the figure he portrays without confining it. People are more than the product of their self-knowledge, even the kind of poetic and intuitive self-knowledge that Capouya commands. His circle does not confine him; any more than the round tower that Montaigne built, to live and write in, prevented him from being the world's wayfarer.

Even apart from the Stoic bent, there is something of Montaigne in Capouya. He is equally hard to describe or pin down. His style is a perpetual digression from the particular to the general and from the anecdotal to the reflective; and there is no special connective effort in it. He does not graze among his ideas and phrases; he surges up at them like a seal grabbing off fish. Like fish, they glitter. As Montaigne does, he displays himself not with satisfaction but with an instructive regret, as if following his own tracks to learn where he has gone. Finally, his somberness is lit with the pleasure of invention that words can provide once you have invented your own silence.

"Sparrow Hills" is set out as five tales but they are essentially five sections in a single recounting and meditation. Much of the narrator's youth was spent as a merchant marine officer in the Pacific during World War II; later he served in the Army and in military intelligence during the Korean War. His account of the practices and mysteries of seamanship is as engrossing as anything that has been published in recent decades.

There is a particularly memorable portrait of the Norwegian captain whom he served as first mate during the Pacific campaign. A captain, Capouya writes, may be mean, quiet, assertive or half-cracked so long as he has the will to size up every situation-- see is the word the Norwegian uses in issuing a command, rather than do --and to react or choose not to react. And to "listen with delight to the appropriate orders issuing from his mouth."

Command is central to Capouya's notion of what life is about. He gives us numerous instances of his own immature struggles with the concept. As a young man, whether as a seaman or a soldier, he was continually moved to react, sometimes violently, against anyone who injured him or threatened to infringe on his own concept of what should be done. There are a number of fights; the author is equally good at evoking his animal rage and his mature reflection on what the rage meant. He does not hesitate to present a boorish younger self or, sometimes, a snobbish older one.

He also portrays the wisdom and forbearance he learned from others: a corporal who quietly intervened to stop him from going after an abusive sergeant, an officer who acknowledged the justice of what he might have reported as an act of insubordination. Particularly, he learned from his captain's consideration for his men and from his outraged protest when the Army command ordered him to carry both troops and explosives on his freighter. It was not out of fear for himself or the crew; as seamen it was their duty to take risks. But it was part of a captain's honor to protect his passengers, even when they were soldiers. More impressive than this anger on behalf of honor is one of the book's finest passages, which relates what happened when a Japanese bomb hit the ship. It is not so much the events that are enthralling as the captain's succession of decisions, forceful and wondrously nuanced.

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