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Aubrey Sets Sail in Pursuit of Napoleon

THE HUNDRED DAYS by Patrick O'Brian, W.W. Norton $24, 282 pages

October 09, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patrick O'Brian, the 84-year-old Anglo Irish writer, has already given us 18 books about the adventures of Capt. Jack Aubrey, his friend Stephen Maturin (Catalan, doctor, naturalist and spy) and of the Royal Navy in the heyday of its struggle against Napoleon.

His 19th, "The Hundred Days," is certain to delight O'Brian's fans, for whom happiness is an unending stream of Aubrey-Maturin books. It may, though, puzzle those who have not yet entered the seductive world that O'Brian has created.

What is the appeal of O'Brian's saga? Partly it's the setting and the action. And indeed, as sea stories, these books are unsurpassed. O'Brian's Mediterranean has the look and smell and feel of Homer's. His Far Eastern waters rival Conrad's in their heaviness under the sultry air; his mighty storms, Conrad's typhoons.

And O'Brian's Southern Ocean! It is beyond compare. In "Desolation Island," the fifth of the series, Aubrey's relentless pursuit of the Dutch warship Waakzaamheid in the roaring ocean below the southern tip of Africa, day after day in frightful weather, stirs the emotions of dread and hope in every reader.

Most compelling are O'Brian's descriptions of the complex and difficult maneuvers of the immense square-rigged fighting ships of the day. If you can learn the nautical lingo--with the help of a good dictionary and hints in the books, you can do that easily--you'll find yourself in the midst of the nautical warfare of two centuries ago. Great battles and little skirmishes, collisions and boardings, chases and blockades unroll before your eyes.

The subtle and affectionate development of the characters in the series is one of its lasting charms. Jack Aubrey, an Englishman, is hearty and brave and slightly gauche. His great and "particular friend," as Aubrey introduces him, is observant, worldly wise and above all a naturalist.

These tales take place during the great age of naturalist discovery, and O'Brian, who has written a biography of the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, weaves the wonder and the pleasure of discoveries of nature throughout the series. There is also a refreshing breeze of the Enlightenment blowing through the stories, the fresh air bringing moral freedom and scientific inquiry to a world born anew.

Some books in the series focus on the finely portrayed relations of the principal characters and their wives in their domestic surroundings, though "The One Hundred Days" does not. This is strictly an adventure tale.

In opposing Napoleon, Aubrey and Maturin represent the fierce opposition of emerging English and Continental liberalism to the French emperor's hijacking of Enlightenment ideals. In "The Hundred Days," after years of arduous war, the allies have finally whipped Napoleon and sentenced him to exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.

Then, of course, he escapes. Europe is shaken as the emperor rallies French troops to his banner and hopes to split the British and Prussian armies from their Austrian and Russian allies and beat them in turn.

To this bit of history O'Brian has added a clever fictional twist. Muslim mercenaries have gathered in the Balkans willing to join Napoleon's forces--for a price. A sheik from a trading post in the Algerian desert holds that price, a nice store of gold.

It is up to Aubrey and Maturin to intercept the gold and foil this plot before the armies clash, as they did at Waterloo, bringing Napoleon's downfall again.

In the course of their journeys they sail the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Dalmatia to Algeria. Aubrey deals with the complex and stratified naval bureaucracy; Maturin encounters an angry lioness in Algeria. The lower ranks of sailors, as always, make their memorable cameo appearances.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of "The Hundred Days" is that O'Brian delivers the story to us in elegant and witty English prose consistent with late 18th-century diction, vocabulary and rhythm. Often ill as a child, O'Brian spent many months of his youth reading 18th- and early 19th-century writers like Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen and Edward Gibbon, whose "noble line" O'Brian never fails to praise. "The Hundred Days" is a fine novel that stands proudly on the shelf with the others. Fans will be happy to know that O'Brian is well at work on his 20th.

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