The Sailor from Gibraltar

Sometimes it’s not what you desire the most that you want, but the opposite – to be deprived of what you desire the most. (125)

The sailor from Gibraltar, that enigmatic creation of Marguerite Duras, that unattainable figure that you go on in search of your whole life aimlessly, akin to that of the Zahir in Borges’ fictions or the Grail in Arthurian legends. In The Sailor of Gibraltar, Anna searches for her wandering lover – a sailor who was once retrieved off the coast of Gibraltar – all over the world in a luxury yacht.

“Three years,” she said.

“Then you met him again.”

“I met him. It’s always the same. I met him at a moment when I might have thought at last, not that I was forgetting him, but that I might perhaps one day be able to live on something other than the memory of him.” (140)

But before this whole pursuit of the sailor from Gibraltar takes the main stage, we are first told of how the narrator left his mistress and work in the Ministry copying certificates to join the crew of the Gibraltar for this quixotic quest. I am amused at how the narrator’s weariness with his past life was expressed in the dreadful but perfectly understandable way that he treated his mistress before dumping her. I like the sparks of wisdom in his increasingly sarcastic comments.

“It wasn’t the apple on the tree that the serpent meant. It was the rotten one lying on the ground. Our Adam, the real Adam, bent down and smelt the rotten apple, and liked it. In the wormy, acid, bulbous fermentation of the apple of Calvados he discovered alcohol. He needed it because he was intelligent.” (62)

Even as the novel focuses on the narrow confines of the protagonist’s domestic affairs, it doesn’t lose sight of social realities. I liked for instance the part at the outset when the narrator and his mistress, on their way to a vacation that would eventually lead to their parting, hitchhiked with a driver who conversed on the road about the landscape and the neighborhoods and politics.

Everything was difficult for the workers, you could hardly call their life an existence at all. The cost of living was high, wages were low. It couldn’t go on like that much longer, things would have to change.

The first thing that needed to be altered was the government – it would have to be thrown out, the present president would have to be got rid of. He expatiated a bit about the president: every time he uttered his unworthy name he waved his arms about in impotent rage and only took hold of the wheel again with reluctance just before it was too late. (10-11)

The Sailor from Gibraltar reads slowly despite its relative slenderness. But this slow build-up gathers a force that can hit the reader with the novel’s closing. It is a subtle yet powerful work.

Most works of fiction these days splash sex and eroticism indiscriminately. The Sailor from Gibraltar, on the other hand, demonstrates that this is not at all essential when touching on the themes of love and desire. In fact, there are no explicit sex scenes. The portrayal of the characters and the tension in their relationships with each other and their surroundings makes this unnecessary.

How do you qualify or quantify happiness? How can you map the contours of a notion as intangible as love? These are the questions that keep on recurring as one reads this novel for which the narrator himself issues a disclaimer somewhere in the middle of the narrative: “If I you told this story in a book no one would believe you.” But he can be easily disregarded when he said that.

Near the novel’s ending, the crew of the Gibraltar receives a tip that they may have, yet again, hit upon the sailor’s tracks. But is this the real one this time? And even if it was the real sailor from Gibraltar, will Anna find her happiness in this man? The novel concludes with a cliffhanger: “The sea grew beautiful as we approached the Caribbean. But I can’t talk about it yet.” That is far more realistic than any of happily ever after love stories will be. ■

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