Friday, May 31, 2013

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson


"1828 - Brilliant young naval officer Robert FitzRoy is given the captaincy of HMS Beagle, surveying the wilds of Tierra del Fuego, aged just twenty-three. He takes a passenger: a young trainee cleric and amateur geologist named Charles Darwin. This is the story of a deep friendship between two men, and the twin obsessions that tore it apart, leading one to triumph and the other to disaster..."

The author could have ensured success for the book by making all about Darwin and The Origin of Species and it would have, indeed, sold. But as the book is about the expedition to Tierra del Fuego, the one that apparently changed the world, Captain FitzRoy is as much a hero (perhaps more) of the book as Charles Darwin. The expedition that seeded in Darwin's mind the idea of natural selection, of an alternative way of the creation of life, also lead to disastrous consequences for FitzRoy, whose ambitions combined with a manic depression (a disorder that wasn't even discovered back then, and was, hence misinterpreted by him as the voice of God) led to disastrous consequences for his career and life.

The book was beautiful, thrilling and tragic. The prominent underlying theme of the book, the shameful, outrageous and atrocious things that the British invaders did to the countries, which they decided it was their duty to "improve" gives the book its title. "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.": it is a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest, which ironically, the sailors themselves seem to have read (going so far as to call a native Caliban and not realizing that they were Prospero, or likewise, in the wrong.) The fact that FitzRoy thought he could bring three savages to London, teach them and release them into the wild (hoping they would then spread the learnings) was ridiculous at best. But he did it, because he thought he was doing God's work (he did later regret it, but the damage was already done by then.) But his behaviour  was also, and this is quite generous coming from a person who is from one of the supposedly primitive, savager-infested countries, in a way, justified. That, of course, doesn't mean it wasn't wrong, it was just not surprising that the sailors were disgusted by the uncivilized, un-London, cannibalistic customs of the Fuegians and considered they were doing the natives a favour by forcing Christianitiy upon them. It was bound to happen. We judge; whether we should or not. 

And it is this inevitability of historical fiction that makes it most impactful. You can't say, "He shouldn't have said that." What he should have done is immaterial, the fact remains that he did it. What the book shows us is this: A long time ago, a brave, proud, smart young man made a mistake and was too stubborn to accept it - and here's why. FitzRoy, who turns out to be the real tragic hero of the book (and not Darwin) was not stupid to have argued with his friend nor crazy to have believed that he was a sort of messenger of God. He was just... born at the wrong time. The book made me realize how lucky we are to have been born in a world where it isn't outrageous to doubt or question something. We are lucky to experience both alternatives and get a choice: religion, rituals, creation of the world by some God (the story of Noah or Manu, here in India) versus science, evolution, natural selection. It is easy to choose a side. It is a lot more difficult to create a side as Darwin did, to create a whole new perspective thitherto unimaginable and while doing so, shatter an entire belief system. But it has to be the most difficult to accept a new side created by someone who doesn't even know in their entirety the meaning and implications of what he's claiming to be the 'ultimate truths'. Reading the book, I realized that it was no wonder FitzRoy considered Darwin a blasphemous madman. I would have too, and I am not nearly as strong or ahead-of-the-times as FitzRoy appears to have been. I wonder how many pugnacious atheists of today would have pugnacious atheists back in the day when atheism wasn't as accessible an option. The point I am trying to make is this: Darwin was unarguably brilliant, but so was FitzRoy, who was rather unfortunately completely overshadowed by his friend. With his daring command over HMS Beagle at the age of twenty-three (the way he handles the first storm they encounter goes to show a lot about him.), his unparalleled contributions to meteorology and weather forecasting, his attempts at compiling the natives' language and his humble, guilty acceptance of his own failures go against any image that an uninformed or misguided modern reader would build of a man like Captain FitzRoy  that he was some random sailor who was silly enough to oppose a great inventor, scientist like Darwin. If only things were as black and white; had Robert FitzRoy really been silly, he would have lived a much happier life and died, satisfied, at a much later age.

As their debates turned solely religious in nature only after the voyage, it was a pleasure to read the long conversations between the two Englishmen during the journey. The fictional elements, in that the dialogue, the nicknames and the italicized thoughts of all the characters make the book, ironically, more real. The one-dimensionality (let's assume that's a word) that would have been possessed by a history guide or a non-fiction study of the voyage is absent. Instead of looking at people as anonymous props defining an era or a way of thought, the characters are fleshed out - and what great characters they are, from Darwin and FitzRoy, to Midshipman King, Sullivan, and even the supposedly reformed savages, York Minster and Jemmy Button. The book ends up being not about Darwin as we know him, but Philos, the geologist / philosopher, who suffers from severe seasickness, which can be cured only by positioning oneself horizontally, preferably on top of a table and later, the man who took his kids bug-hunting in his own yard. FitzRoy, the Captain, is characterized not just by his strength of mind and bravery, but by his prudish quintessentially English manners that make him mortally embarrassed by the topless, flirtatious native women and by being the first to try and compile a massive dictionary, if very rudimentary, of the natives' language - in fact, by being the one sailor of this bunch who tried to communicate with the savages in their language (one word: Yammerschooner!)

And do I even have to mention the vivid descriptions of the most beautiful landscapes, the flora and fauna and the interesting conclusions both Darwin and FitzRoy drew from them?

It is an amazing book. Thompson has done something very few biographers manage: made details interesting, strangers personal and has managed, certainly, to engage me deeply in a sprawling history of just two lives.

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