When I started my maritime-and-ports novel-reading adventure, three people suggested Hans Henny Jahnn’s The Ship to me. One of the three is an author I hold in awe, so I ordered the book (printed on demand by Amazon) – surprised that I couldn’t find the book in any form anywhere and that there was very little on Jahnn himself out there. His Wikipedia page even has that random fragmentary feel of a biography put together by a robot doing machine searches. I eventually found a brief collection of blogposts by someone obsessed with Jahnn… There seem to be many out there; people who have read The Ship and who are haunted by him.
I have now read the book and I can see why. It is a strange book structured like a mystery, with extraordinary suspense, but with no compulsion to resolve even the most fundamental and troubling of the puzzles. I am not sure whether it is a parable, a philosophical reflection on reason voiced by stand-ins representing different views, or a macabre existential tale. Maybe it is all these things. For one thing, it is the first book of a trilogy the other parts of which have not been translated. For another, the translation has a mannered feel (it is beautiful, but very mannered) and given the absence of writing in English on Jahnn, it is impossible to say whether this mannered style (reminding me of Lautremont and Lovecraft) is the effect of the writing or the translation.
See for example, this passage:
Man is born with a demand for justice, as he understands it. Since his demand remains unfulfilled, a broad understanding of the arbitrary course of events gradually begins to develop in him. He makes the decisions of others his own. He hardens his thoughts to inflexible ideas and consoles his inner powers with a later or a beyond.
Or this one, in which a young bourgeois stowaway considers the experienced seamen:
And he discovered that he was inferior to these men. They had had experience in every direction. At fourteen they had already mistaken the joys of Hell for the bliss of Paradise, and, later, stood again and again with empty hands in a completely illuminated world . . . Gustave envied them, not for their miserable experiences, but for the particular smell of reality which would never be his because he didn’t have the courage, wasn’t sufficiently carefree, to let himself be torn to shreds for no good reason.
But what I found most delightful and terrifying about the novel was its description of the ship itself. Jahnn was the grandson of a shipbuilder and his detailed sketches of the ship, of its smells and feel, the tar and the wood and the copper, is a sensory experience par excellence. The ship breathes, is alive, is the source of dreams and nightmares, it is a mysterious space that seems to expand into infinity through secret passageways and doubled rooms and sealed bulkheads. It terrifies me because I hope to take a trip on a container ship eventually and the idea of a mirror world behind the walls of the ship is appealing to me in a macabre sort of way.
I will have to think about the novel more (I only finished it last night) – about the unresolved disappearances, the gathering of malicious rumours, the strange formalism of a pseudo-mutiny, the inexplicable oscillation between love and hate the main characters feel towards one another. But I am sure I will come back to it.