Ship of Fools

Katherine Anne Porter

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Some people write only one book, and one is all they need.To Kill a Mockingbird, Conspiracy of Dunces, and Black Beauty come to mind. The books are so perfect in their completeness that to add another would be wrong. How do you follow perfection? Anything else they write after the one, would be second best.

This wonderful book tells the story of the first-class passengers on a German cruise ship, the S. A. Vera, sailing from Veracruz, Mexico, and Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1931. Each passenger and ship’s officer is delineated in scrupulous detail. The narrative drifts in and out of each of their lives as the ship slowly moves closer to its destination. Apparently Ms. Porter never learned the rule that one doesn’t change point of view in the middle of a paragraph. Virginia Woolf knew it, I’m sure, but chose to disregard it.

The book has a claustrophobia feel to it. There is nowhere to go to escape the other passengers. Nowadays cruise ships are behemoths, carrying up to 4,000 passengers. There are many opportunities to avoid an unpleasant fellow passenger. This was not so in 1931. Meals were all taken at the same time with the same table companions. One ran into the same people over and over again while on deck. One learned more that one wanted to know about fellow-passengers.

The book is a fascinating exploration of characters from the revolting children Ric and Rac who like to throw things overboard, to the mysterious and engaging Condesa, who rates a compartment all herself. Ms. Porter shows each character with its faults and strengths in loving detail.

By the end of the voyage one doesn’t want the ship to dock but keep on sailing.

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