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Book Review

Chronicle of a Colonial Paradise Lost

THE RISING SUN; by Douglas Galbraith; Atlantic Monthly Press; $25, 528 pages

March 08, 2001|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Rising Sun," a first novel by Scottish writer Douglas Galbraith, is an old-fashioned, consummate slow read. An epic historical novel, covering huge distances in geography, economics and cultural landscapes, the storytelling emulates the great adventure tales of old, invoking Melville's "Moby Dick" and Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in a similar, if paler, vein.

Set in the late 1600s during the Scottish Enlightenment, the story follows the flagship "Rising Sun" and four lesser vessels on a seafaring adventure from Scotland to the colony of Darien, now known as Panama. On this one crucial expedition, the economic and political hope of all Scotland rides; from this auspicious beginning, the nation expects to finally compete with England on the worldwide stage of empire-building. In addition to settling the community of New Edinburgh, the colonists plan to provide a passage route, via land, for maritime traders across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean, thereby raising vast wealth, becoming masters of their own destiny and escaping the tyranny of England. The story details the paradise they begin to create and the horrific culmination of their efforts.

Recorded as a voyage log by Roderick Mackenzie, the superintendent of cargoes, the novel is more than a rousing adventure tale. It is the story of ironfisted British rule and the effects this had on Scotland, a tale of outrageous misfortune, greed and the determined effort to make one's visions come to life, the human toll be damned. At its heart, it's a story of humankind and how adversity makes us--for good or for ill--even more ourselves. "[A] side of meat, however well salted, cannot be hung in New Edinburgh for a day without becoming green," the narrator tells us. "In three days it swarms with vermin. Men turn sour with the same speed."

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Fueling the tale is the inexorable power of naive hope and its shadow side, denial. The colonists, by refusing to face the harsh realities that oppose their vision, unwittingly plot their own destruction. Yet, as the story makes clear, without this blind optimism, no journey, no soul expansion would be possible. When Mackenzie is first helping raise funds for the voyage, for example, he is amazed by the money common people who have been teetering on the verge of starvation bring forth to invest in the plan. "Hunger had not squeezed this money from the people, but the Company brought it flowing forth willingly, down to the last true and honest ounce. By a triple alchemy the heart and soul of our people was turned into that gold, and that gold into wood and that wood into these ships, the greatest of which creaks and sighs around me as I write." The book explores the two sides of this indispensable coin, hope, liming both the harm done in its name as well as its essential saving grace.

Interposed with the tale of the ocean voyage and the resulting colony are Mackenzie's flashback narratives of the time just before the journey: his own awakening youth and his efforts to become a successful businessman amid the money-strapped economy of Edinburgh. Mackenzie quickly becomes mercurial in his loyalties, using the windfalls and misfortunes of others to grasp his own desires. By showing Mackenzie's fallibility and goodness side-by-side, Galbraith succeeds with a multilayered narrator who arouses first disgust and later, understanding.

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The writing throughout is beautifully wrought, if a little high-minded in its diction. What served in Melville's day as regular narrative prose can at times seem pained and needlessly florid to contemporary readers. Still, when one gives over to the voice that's issuing forth, forgetting that no one in this day and age would speak in such a way, the spell is cast and the tale unfolds like a vast exotic panorama demanding further examination. Likewise, the plot itself treads a fine line between the trite, expected detail and the fascinating. Young Mackenzie's first visit to a bordello, for example, is one we've all read a few times too many; the race being staged to test the firing qualities of three different kinds of gunpowder is completely intriguing.

One of the questions "The Rising Sun" asks in terms of colonization is whether man, as a species, believes he can "make good all such defects by his own effort--be the author, entirely, of his own paradise?" It's a query that's still appropriate, and to Galbraith's credit is presented in such a way as to subtly raise discomfort with the arrogant, domineering relation we in the West often assume with nature. When the colonists at Darien are unable to get the pineapples they'd transplanted from another part of the isthmus to grow in the cove where they'd settled, a native man suggests that "if we went to the pineapple instead of making the pineapple come to us, all would be well." The best historical fiction not only tells us about our past but, as in this case, also helps us to see the folly of our predecessors--and who knows?--maybe do things differently the next time around.

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