By: Alessandro Baricco
In Ocean Sea, Alessandro Baricco presents a hypnotizing postmodern fable of human malady–psychological, existential, erotic–and the sea as a means of deliverance. At the Almayer Inn, a remote shoreline hotel, an artist dips his brush in a cup of ocean water to paint a portrait of the sea. A scientist pens love letters to a woman he has yet to meet. An adulteress searches for relief from her proclivity to fall in love. And a sixteen-year-old girl seeks a cure from a mysterious condition which science has failed to remedy. When these people meet, their fates begin to interact as if by design. Enter a mighty tempest and a ghostly mariner with a thirst for vengeance, and the Inn becomes a place where destiny and desire battle for the upper hand.
Like four years ago, I found myself dwelling on the sea the most as I was re-reading this novel. To each of the major characters, the sea represents something differently to them. To Elisewin, the sea represents a cure to her ailment. Her ailment was a curious thing that no one could solve; it seemed like it was a form of anxiety or fear of the outside world or repressed/unexplored sexuality but it’s up to the reader’s interpretation. There is Ann, who is sent to the inn to be “cured” of her extramarital passions; I personally thought her story seemed the most straightforward, the cause of her journey the most “old school” of the lot. To Plasson, the sea represented the final challenge, to paint something that holds more questions than what his eye perceives. He tries to capture the essence of the sea, to understand where it all begins. Holding up the other end of that inquiry is the professor Bartleboom who seeks to understand where the sea ends. The sea represents different things to everyone: the beginning and the end of thought and life, of dreams, of possibilities, of cures and an opening of minds. It is everything and nothing and ultimately it’s up to the reader to determine what the sea is to him or her.
I think part of the experience of reading this novel is really the prose and being in the moment with the feelings that emerge from the prose: to contemplate on the waves, the feeling of the wind and the cold, the waters stretching out to the horizon. As before, the prose is beautiful and in the end, perhaps it’s not so much about determining and philosophising what the sea is about to the characters and to yourself but rather just feeling the sea.
Reading this novel, I personally thought Bartleboom’s story was the saddest, searching for his soul mate while writing letters that he will give to her once he finds her. It seemed as though life or fate or however you want to call it played a cruel trick on him that in the end he never found that woman he was waiting for. Is this perhaps the author’s commentary about the notion of finding true love or the concept of waiting for something that will never come? I thought this was the bleakest part of the novel, yet important to consider.
As the first time around, I did feel a little dragged down by the second part of the novel where the stream of consciousness kicked in. It’s not something I’m into–I actually stopped reading Jose Saramago’s The History of the Seige of Lisbon because I couldn’t focus on the stream of consciousness prose–so in the context of this novel I’m probably missing a bit of the experience. Maybe one day I’ll get it.
Ocean Sea was an interesting book to re-visit. Given that it’s been a while, my memory of the story was a little hazy so in a way it was like reading the novel for the first time. It isn’t a novel for everyone as the plot isn’t necessarily obvious and it’s more about what the characters are going through, even with the strangeness of their situations (a touch of magical realism in this case), but it is worth checking out if you’re into the more abstract, post-modern literature.