“Welcome to tonight’s roundtable discussion sponsored by ‘The Campus Institute of Political Seriousness for Enhanced Living in an Unenhanced World.’ I’m your host, Jonathan Wellborn Truington III, and joining us this evening is Mr. Blurtso Lundif, a former diversity fellow at Harvard College who has come to speak about his new novel.
“As I recall, Mr. Lundif, the last time we visited you were making a name for yourself by standing in the snow.”
“Yes,” said Blurtso.
“Perhaps you could describe your novel. What’s it about?”
“It’s about an eighteenth-century pirate donkey,” said Blurtso, “who sails the Mediterranean in search of fortune and fame.”
“I see,” said Mr. Truington, “and why does he stand in the snow?”
“He doesn’t,” said Blurtso.
“He doesn’t?” said Mr. Truington.
“No,” said Blurtso.
“Then what is so special about him?”
“He’s an eighteenth-century pirate donkey,” said Blurtso, “who sails the Mediterranean in search of fortune and fame.”
“Does he give the booty he steals to the poor?”
“No,” said Blurtso.
“Does he help overthrow the tyrannical king, Louis XVI of France?”
“No,” said Blurtso.
“Does he choose a female donkey as his first mate, and promote feminist reform in the equine world?”
“No,” said Blurtso.
“Does he give his life to a cause greater than himself, discover a cure for cancer or found a new religion?
“No,” said Blurtso.
“Then why,” said Mr. Truington, “should anyone buy your book?”
“They shouldn’t,” said Blurtso.
“They shouldn’t?” said Mr. Truington.
“No,” said Blurtso.
“Why not?” said Mr. Truington.
“Because,” said Blurtso, “people shouldn’t buy things they don’t really need.”
“I see,” said Mr. Truington. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. Thank you, Mr. Lundif, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us about your extraordinarily uneventful novel. I’m sure the audience will join me in wishing you well in your future endeavors, and in hoping that your second novel will be more interesting than your first.”
Wow, thought Blurtso, counting the twenty Patrick O’Brian novels I have, and my copy of Leaves of Grass, I now have a library of 5,021 volumes… five thousand of which I wrote myself.
What are all these? said Harlan. They’re books, said Blurtso. Books? said Harlan. Yes, said Blurtso, I used the money I had left over from my school grant to publish my novel. Your novel? said Harlan. Yes, said Blurtso, Blurtseau Lundif – Corsaire Extraordinaire. How many copies did you print? said Harlan. Only five thousand, said Blurtso.
“Another day,” thought Blurtseau, “and another night. The king is dead, and those who killed the king are dead, and Napoleon consolidates his power while those who would kill him wait in the wings. And the once-full moon that illuminated my vainglorious victory now wanes with a warbling light. Tomorrow the fighting will begin anew, the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Italian, Sardinian, Greek generals… and all the world spins with the bones of the living and the bones of the dead, so many dead, those who pursued a borrowed or inherited dream, white bones in the soil, white bones in the surf of the sea, bones as white as the flickering tail of the waning moon, sparking and submerging among the breakers, flickering water reflection of fleeting sun echoed upon half-eaten moon, half-eaten moon half-eclipsed by the globe it now reflects down upon… half-eaten glow that grows dimmer each day… until the moon, the day, the night, and all our blood-urgent exploits fall dark upon the darkness of the sea, and vanish in the low laving sound of the waves eating the rocks with their dance of disintegration.
“And when the moon goes black, the stars will mark my path to Montecristo where Echo, alone on her island, watches the same silver flicker on a different surface of the same sea. And the light that flickered in her heart? Has it fallen prey to the same dance of deterioration? Will I find the moon already extinguished in the sea of her breast? Eclipsed by the vainglorious sphere that was my haste to depart? The misguided course of this star-crossed corsaire pursuing a sinking star? Yesterday’s hero is the dark side of the earth facing the dark side of the moon, is darkness double, two-faced night’s faceless faces, an echo of existence which touches no ear, a shout across an infinite expanse, an unreciprocated smile, a source without destination, a word from the heart that never arrives.”
“My heart is an echo of the disintegration
of the heart of the universe
that penetrates and disintegrates my own heart.”
At this point we meet a British sea captain named Alecs of York, and an elephant named Arlan de Borneo. An elephant? said Harlan. Yes, said Blurtso.
As he returned to his post, Arlan considered the life he had led and the peril that lay in the offing. Dr. Arlan de Borneo had run a successful medical practice in Dover until the unlucky day he botched a routine tonsillectomy on the town constable, rendering him aphonic for life. As a result his practice faltered, and he was forced to seek employment at sea. The ships sailing under Captain Alecs of York had a long-standing reputation for being the most casualty-ridden in the fleet, and as a result the captain struggled to find physicians for his ship.
With no other options, Arlan accepted a post on the Manhattan, but because of his inordinate size and the limited crew that could subsequently be housed, he was obliged to perform the duties of a dozen men. Fortunately, it was a charge he was able to fulfill, for he could effortlessly clasp a line and pull with the force of twenty hands, and could labor for days without sleep. Although he was, by nature, a gentle soul, it was clear that if he were ever roused to anger, he would wreak more havoc than a regiment of Her Majesty’s finest.
Aboard the Manhattan he was given the store room at the stern of the middle deck in which to sleep, but as he rarely slept, the space soon became a game room in which he and Captain Alecs passed slow hours in contests of two-king chess. The contests pleased and frustrated Lord Alecs, for he had never encountered a player whose skill rivaled his own, and though he won more than he lost, it seemed that luck played an inordinate role in his victories. Arlan enjoyed the matches as well, though for different reasons. It had only taken him a few games to unmask his Captain’s strategy, a strategy based on aggression, in which Alecs was willing to sacrifice any number of pieces if the maneuver brought an element of surprise and led to the rapid and dazzling defeat of his opponent. Once Arlan understood this, he was never surprised again, and from then on he was forced to lose matches on purpose to keep the tally leaning in the Captain’s favor. The same aggressive maneuvers, Arlan understood, might be equally effective at sea, but only if Lord Alecs was unknown to the enemy. An astute commander who had engaged him before, and survived his first attacks, could redirect the aggression back to its source, and so, as the reputation of Lord Alecs and his tactics became better and better known, his career moved more swiftly to its end.
With all this in mind, Dr. Arlan de Borneo was not the least surprised when the Manhattan sailed directly past L’Isle d’If and straight toward the mouth of the Marseilles harbor, where it attacked the first ship it encountered, hoping to capture a crew member who would know the whereabouts of Blurtseau Lundif.
“Aaarrgghh!!!” growled Alecs. “Sixteen sheets to the wind!!!
Into the devil’s kiln!!”
At this point in the novel, said Blurtso, Echo has left her island to go in search of Blurtseau. After meeting a pig named Winston in England, the two cross the channel to France and make their way to Paris…
As Winston and Echo made their way through the streets of Paris, they began to feel more and more uneasy. They had never imagined there were so many people in the world. Everywhere they turned, they saw larger and larger crowds, parades of feet hurrying to some urgent destination, and every one of them was speaking a language neither Echo nor Winston could understand. The only word they knew was the name of the town where Blurtseau had lived, Roquebrune. And so, hoping someone might recognize the town and point them in the proper direction, they stood on a corner repeating that single word, “Roquebrune? Roquebrune? Roquebrune?”
Of course, it was highly unlikely that any of the passersby would recognize the name of a town of 500 inhabitants, 400 kilometers to the south; a principality that had just become a part of France. As a result, Echo’s and Winston’s inquiries elicited nothing more than puzzled looks and an occasional hungry glance, a glance that made Winston tremble, remembering his nightmarish experience in the Butcher’s Shop. Echo, too, was frightened by the things she saw, and by the din of sounds that thundered in her ears. She looked to Winston for courage, and though her friend was as panicked as she, his innate sense of self-importance, and belief he knew everything, enabled him to move confidently forward, repeating with every stride, “Roquebrune? Roquebrune? Roquebrune?”
By the end of their first day, Echo and Winston were exhausted and hungry. Though they had passed shops selling all types of food, and humans constantly engaged in the act of eating—even while they walked—Echo and Winston had not stumbled across a single discarded crumb until they chanced upon a plaza where a farmer’s market was being disassembled. They stuffed themselves with carrot tops and brown lettuce until they were full, and when it began to rain they walked down to a wide green river and took shelter under an enormous stone bridge.
The days came and went, and the weeks and months, and despite the rigor of his studies, Blurtseau’s mind wandered. In a real sense, he felt he was being torn in two. On one hand was his life as a warrior, defending his homeland and rising against injustice, and on the other was his growing love for culture and the arts, and for simple things. He reveled in the rhymed worlds of Dante and Petrarch, and the playful mischief of Boccaccio, and his thoughts often turned to Echo and the wisdom of her island. But it was too early to give up the physical rapture that had honed his body into a flawless fighting machine, a machine that fought without forethought, spontaneously parrying with a perfect balance of give and take. Yet now, had his instincts been altered? His equilibrium become unbalanced? Was he incapable of action without thought, without considering consequences beyond borders? Was this the price he paid for the loss of ignorance? For the joys of compassion? And as for his future, what did it mean? Fame and fortune now seemed empty next to a life of art, or a life of shared simplicity. Becoming a Renaissance donkey was not turning him into a harmonious whole, as he had hoped and expected, but was tearing him to pieces as the parts of himself vied, one against the others, for preeminence and control. And then there was his irrepressible sentimentality, as he continued to long for distant days with Pableau, Josette, and Echo.
Blurtseau told Echo about his life before the island—his voyages, the battles he had fought, the perils he had overcome—but though she listened with enthusiasm, she could scarcely imagine the things he described, for they were all things she had never seen. Bloodshed, of which there was much in his stories, was unknown on the island, and though she had witnessed aging in other animals—the goats in particular—the only deaths she had seen were the result of natural cause, and it seemed to her no more troubling than a deep and dreamless sleep. As for the humans, who commanded so much attention in his stories, she had never seen one, and could only picture them as hyper-contentious goats walking upright. The towns and cities were unreservedly fantastic. She could not believe there were such things as streets and houses and palaces constructed from predetermined plans; a physical world built on the airy blueprints of imagination. She concluded that these magical creatures needed to do little more than imagine an object to make it appear, but she wondered why they chose to live in an artificial world rather than the real one that was already around them.
Blurtseau, for his part, found Echo’s innocence to be as unimaginable as his lack of it, and he began to understand that what he saw, even the simplest object on the island, bore little resemblance to what she saw. And the meanings that he understood when he used the words he used were not the meanings she understood when she heard them. But he was enchanted by her innocence, and longed to know what it was like to live in her world, and she was content to play Desdemona to his Othello, losing herself in his tales, imbibing adventure as if slaking her thirst at a secret and mysterious spring.
At this point in the novel, said Blurtso, Blurtseau Lundif and his friends have intercepted the British sugar ship and are fleeing for their lives…
Claude did as directed, with the British sloop behind, until pursuer and pursued were lost from sight beneath the watery peaks. Blurtseau, who could no longer see the enemy ship, turned to descend the rigging, but before he could, a wall of water struck the schooner, causing the hull to rock and roll, and throwing our hero—as if he had been pitched from a catapult—into the frothing jaw of the sea. His companions watched in horror as he soared, head over hooves, describing a perfect parabola across the moonlit sky.
“Blurtseau!” called Pableau.
“Blurtseau!” called Josette.
“Blurtseau!” called Claude. But their comrade could not hear, or if he could, he could not reply, and the rudderless ship, steered now by the storm, drew quickly away, leaving our hero bobbing like a cork on the writhing water.
“We must turn and find him!” cried Pableau.
“Turn whither?” said Claude.
“Blurtseau is an excellent swimmer,” said Pableau. “I’m sure he’s secured a plank, or piece of driftwood, and is paddling for calmer seas. If we circle, describing a broader and broader circumference, we’ll cross him with our bow.”
“Yes,” said Claude, “when the storm has settled.”
And so they waited, tossed and turned in the belly of the gale, until the sky cleared. By dawn the British frigate, carried east with the careening clouds, was no longer to be seen, and the Zurrabelle was free to begin her search.
They sailed for fourteen days and fourteen nights, each day broadening the scope of their search, and each day encountering only sea. On the morning of the fifteenth day Pableau, perched on the foremast, thought he had spied his lost friend, but he was soon dismayed when closer inspection revealed a dark-grey dolphin. Josette, who had been holding up bravely, burst into tears, and Claude drew slowly and solemnly upon his pipe.