Anyway, I've decided that I'm going to start posting a representative review of one book from each of my columns. Hopefully it will entice people to buy the book and the magazine! I honestly don't think the magazine receives the respect it deserves, especially around award time. Editor Shawna McCarthy really does a superb job.
So without further ado . . .
Christ-like figures have been a notable feature of Gene Wolfe’s novels for some time. Wolfe is a Catholic, and Christianity is often present by implication or allegory in his fiction, whether called by that or some other name, yet I can’t recall Wolfe ever incorporating his religion as overtly into a novel as he does in Pirate Freedom (Tor, New York, hardcover, 320 pp., $24.95, ISBN: 978-0-7653-1878-7). That alone makes this deceptively breezy book a significant one for avid readers of this fascinating writer. Beneath the irresistibly sun-splashed surface of a boy’s own adventure story set aboard pirate ships cruising the Caribbean in the early 18th century is a novel that raises profound questions about faith, religion, and the consequences of attempting to discern, and live in accordance with, God’s will and Christ’s example. It’s a haunting book, a surprisingly dark book, whose shadows counterpoint the Caribbean sun, a book I found distasteful in many ways. It is also a small masterpiece.
If a believing Catholic writes a novel in which the only fantastic elements derive directly from the Catholic God, can the novel really be termed a fantasy? If the author believes that no miracle is beyond God, and he employs a miracle as the centerpiece of his plot, then, no, in my opinion the novel cannot be called a fantasy, at least not in the sense that we normally use the word. Pirate Freedom is a novel of many deceptions, but perhaps the greatest of them is that it pretends to be this kind of novel, for it seems at first blush to offer no other signs of the fantastic beyond the inscrutable act of God that flings the hero/narrator/author, Chris, three centuries back in time, only to return him to a present some years in advance of that from whence he originally departed. Yet on closer examination, we see that the near future (in our terms, not his) from which an older but scarcely wiser Chris is writing the words we are reading is not a future that could have grown from our present, even though it shares significant aspects of our past. In this future, close enough at hand that it is pegged to the collapse of the communist regime in Cuba, which seems likely to occur in our world within the next ten or perhaps twenty years, there is a monorail system linking the cities of the East Coast; in this future, genetic engineering has reached a point where parents can and do preselect the physical endowments of their children. Chris is such a child: he refers to himself as a “half-human monster.” Do half-human monsters possess God-given souls? We shall see. But the point I wish to make here is that for all its seeming straightforwardness, Wolfe has built a back door into his narrative that makes his world, and especially the past in which the bulk of the action takes place, despite its historical verisimilitude, as fantastic a creation as Narnia . . . with the added twist of possessing all the delightfully maddening Escher-like structural peculiarities and puzzles of time-travel paradox.
Pirate Freedom is also notable in that the Chris who is our narrator is a Catholic priest, and as such seems to stand in a much closer relationship to the author than many of Wolfe’s other narrators. It’s always dangerous to proclaim a character as a surrogate for the author, but I felt very strongly as I read that Wolfe was telling his spiritual autobiography through this character’s adventures.
The novel is quite literally a single, long confession. It is written by Chris for a nameless man, a murderer, who came to him for confession and absolution. In the course of the sacrament, which Wolfe refers to only obliquely, Chris apparently mentioned that he too was a murderer. Some time later, the man (Wolfe?) returns and requests the full story from the priest, which he agrees to give him in the form of a letter. It’s easy to forget, as the story leaps ahead like a ship with a strong wind at its back, that Pirate Freedom is the confession of a murderer.
In telling the story of the murder he committed, Chris goes much further afield, relating the full panoply of the rousing adventures he experienced as a younger man, when he miraculously slipped three hundred years back through time to the early 18th century and became a pirate. To avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to this Chris as Chris1. The other Chris, the author of the confession, I will refer to as Chris2. But of course they are the same Chris, even though, due to the vagaries of time travel, they occasionally overlap in space, in ways I will leave readers to discover, but which are highly important not only to the plot but to the moral dimension of the narrative. Readers should not allow themselves to be distracted by the exploits of Chris1. Always ask yourself: where is Chris2, and what is he doing?
Chris1 is born in New Jersey to a mobster who, upon the fall of the Cuban communists, travels to Havana to run a casino. This occurs when Chris1 is ten. No mother is mentioned, and indeed there may not be a mother at all, if Chris1 is, in addition to being genetically engineered, a clone; this is an explosive possibility that raises the question of whether there might be a Chris3; perhaps this Chris3 is even the man who Chris2 is addressing his confession; and perhaps this Chris3, this wiseguy, is present under a different name in the adventures of Chris1. It’s an intriguing puzzle that, as far as I can see, has no definite answer; but it can’t be entirely dismissed for that reason. At any rate, Chris1’s father, no doubt to protect him, places him in a local monastery, and it’s there, after perhaps seven years, that Chris1, faced with the decision of whether to enter the monastic order or not, chooses to leave and go in search of his father, whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in years. It’s at this point, when he leaves the monastery, that Chris1 discovers he has traveled in time.
In short order, Chris1 joins a ship’s crew, where, despite fighting back, he is brutally raped twice by his fellow sailors before the captain intercedes—an experience that does not leave Chris2, later, with any empathy for teenage victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. This shocking inability to judge others by the light of his own experiences, and to grant to others the same charity which he has benefited from, is one of Chris’s most repugnant traits, enduring through time. Despite becoming a priest and professing at all times an intent to do God’s will, both Chrises avail themselves of the consolations of hypocrisy in order to justify repeated crimes and sins such as murder, theft, and adultery. Chris—both of him—is a supreme egotist with a hair-trigger temper and a prickly sense of honor and entitlement. He is not entirely without conscience, and he fitfully attempts to help or free slaves when he encounters them (including a man who may be the original of Crusoe’s Friday), but he is also complicit in selling them.
Yet God has chosen him, sent him back in time, and then forward again, for some purpose. What could it be? The motivation that drives the Chrises, as so many of Wolfe’s characters, is love for a woman who is herself no paragon of Christian virtue, but rather a murderess, adulteress, and liar. Can that love transcend its trashy origins, become something closer to the love that Christ displayed in His life and death? That is the question Pirate Freedom poses with panache and pursues as if it were a Spanish galleon ripe for the plucking.