Bis ans Ende der Meere.
Diogenes Verlag, Zürich.
In this novel Hartmann describes the Third Voyage of James Cook through the eyes of John Webber, the artist of this voyage and the main character of the book.
In the first chapter Webber personally delivers his portrait of Cook to Mrs Cook as a present from the Admiralty. She refuses to see any likeness of her husband, as she remembers him, in the "earnest and pinched" person in the portrait. She implores Webber to tell her the truth about Cook's death, but he cannot oblige. However, she keeps the portrait because "it would be very impolite towards the Admiralty to refuse it".
The next chapter describes the voyage of the six year old John Webber from London to live with his aunt in Berne (Switzerland), where he learns to paint. From then on, Hartmann switches between the description of Cook's Third Voyage and the time after it in London, when Webber had to work his sketches into paintings and oversee their engraving by the copperplate engravers.
The description of the voyage is given either in the form of fictionalised letters from Webber to his brother Henry and a girl he was attracted to, or as a diary, or as a report.
As an artist Webber comes over as a very good observer. He not only writes about the events of the voyage but also about the moods and the atmosphere on board. I found this aspect very interesting, because Webber associated with the officers (he took his meals with them) but also kept company with the lower ranks.
He tells us about the discussions among Cook, King and the other officers about how to treat the natives and bring them the achievements of the European civilisation (including venereal diseases). He is very shocked by the acts of violence that Cook orders or tolerates (such as whipping members of the crew, and burning down native villages). On the one hand, he sees Cook as a father; on the other, as a very private person and someone who tends to excessive and sometimes irrational outbursts of rage at relatively small incidents. Among the company he observes and endures the tensions caused by the very different personalities living in cramped quarters, aggravated by the many animals (cows, goats, horses and pigs) with their noise and stench.
After getting used to the life on board, he starts painting and sketching all he sees. However Cook censors his pictures. Everything that shows the British in a bad light is forbidden and destroyed. This is very frustrating to Webber, as he is not allowed to put down on paper what he actually observes. After the voyage, he experiences the same censoring, now ordered by the Admiralty, with regard to the paintings that are allowed to be published, especially the one showing Cook's death at Hawaii.
Three years after his first visit to Mrs Cook, he brings her 60 copperplate engravings. This visit is even more of a disaster than the first one. Cook's son Hugh does not want to believe that his father was killed without a fight. The family and the Admiralty wish James Cook to be remembered as a hero.
During my reading of the book, I heard two interviews on the radio with Lukas Hartmann. He explained that he wanted to show how a historical truth is created and what happens when the values of our European civilisation are brought to other parts of the world. Like the John Webber of the book, he sees himself in the role of a "reporter" of the voyage. The reporter has to describe what he sees but is always bothered by his inadequacies as an artist.
Hartmann said that today the circumstances of such a voyage are not imaginable. As an author he can use his imagination to compensate for this, in contrast to the historians who have to report facts. With regard to the censoring by Cook and the Admiralty, he asks himself how we can determine what really happened on the voyages and know what was left out and what was whitewashed.
In considering the changed character of Cook compared to the earlier voyages, Hartmann speculated, that Cook was suffering from stress, perhaps even burn-out. In fact, James Cook often emerges as a rather unpleasant, unpredictable person.
I enjoyed reading the book. It is well written, detached and with many details. It gives a good insight into how life on such a ship would have been for the ordinary seaman.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 32, number 3 (2009).