What, I hear you ask, is the point of this post?
A friend recently lent me Friends in High Places, saying that I would enjoy it. When I came to chapter 14, I knew why, and recognized myself in a teenage girl and a woman, both of them fictional.
Captain Aubrey, I presume, he said in English
He hung his jacket in the closet. As soon as he walked into the kitchen, Chiara, who was sitting at the table doing what looked like some sort of geography project – the surface of the table was covered with maps, a ruler, and a protractor – launched herself at him and wrapped herself around him. ‘Papá’, she said, even before he had time to kiss her or say hello, ‘could I take sailing lessons this summer?’
Brunetti looked, but looked in vain, for Paola, who might have been able to give him some explanation.
‘Sailing lessons?’ he repeated.
‘Yes, Papá, she said, looking up and smiling. ‘I’ve got a book and I’m trying to teach myself navigation, but I think someone else will have to teach me how to sail a boat.’ She took his hand and pulled him toward the kitchen table, which, he saw, was indeed covered with maps of all sort, but maps of shoals and coastlines, only the edges where countries and continents kissed the water.
She moved away from him and stood over the tale, looking down at the book that lay open below her, another book propping it open. ‘Look, Papá,’ she said, jabbing a finger down at a list of numbers, ‘if they don’t have any clouds, and they have an accurate set of charts and a chronometer, they can tell just about where they are, anywhere in the world.’
‘Who can, angel?’ he asked, opening the refrigerator and pulling out a bottle of Tokai.
‘Captain Aubrey and his crew-‘ she said, in a voice that suggested the answer should have been obvious.
‘And who is Captain Aubrey?’ he asked.
‘He’s the captain of the Surprise,’ she said, looking at him as if he’d just admitted not knowing his own address.
‘The Surprise?’ he asked, no closer to illumination.
‘In the books, Papá, the ones about the war with the French.’ Before he could admit his ignorance, she added, ‘They’re wicked, aren’t they, the French?’
Brunetti, who thought they were, said nothing, still having no idea of what they were talking about. He poured himself a small glass of wine and took a large sip, then another. Again, he glanced down at the maps and noticed that the blue parts contained many ships, but old-fashioned ones, surmounted by billowing clouds of white sails, and what he took to be tritons in the maps’ corners, rising up from the waters with conch shells raised to their lips.
He gave in. ‘What books, Chiara?’
‘The ones Mamma gave me, in English, about the English sea captain and his friend and the war against Napoleon.’
Ah, those books. He took another sip of his wine. ‘And do you like them a much as Mamma does?’
‘Oh,’ Chiara said, looking up at him with a serious expression, ‘I don’t think anyone could like them a much as she does.’
Four years ago, Brunetti had been abandoned by his wife of almost twenty years for a period of more than a month while she systematically read her way through at his count, eighteen sea novels dealing with the unending years of war between the British and the French. The time had seemed no less long to him, for it was a time when he, too, ate hasty meals, half-cooked meat, dry bread, and was often driven to seek relief in excessive quantities of grog. Because she seemed to have no other interest, he had taken a look at one of the books, if only to have something to talk about at their thrown-together meals. But he found it discursive, filled with strange facts and stranger animals, and had abandoned the attempt after only a few pages and before making the acquaintance of Captain Aubrey. Fortunately, Paola was a fast reader, and she returned to the twentieth century after finishing the last one, apparently none the worse for the shipwreck, battle, and scurvy that had menaced her during those weeks.
Thus the maps. ‘I’ll have to talk to your mother about it;’ he said.
‘About what?’ Chiara asked, head again bent over the maps, her left hand busy with her calculator, a device Brunetti thought Captain Aubrey might have envied her.
‘The sailing lessons.’
‘Ah yes,’ Chiara said, slipping into English with eel-like ease, ‘I long to sail a ship.’
Brunetti left her to it, refilled his glass and poured out another, then went towards Paola’s study. The door was open, and she lay on the sofa, only her forehead visible over the top of her book.
‘Captain Aubrey, I presume,’ he said in English.
She put the book down on her stomach and smiled at him. Without a word, she reached up and took the glass he offered.
During their family meal:
During all of this, Chiara continued in her role as Ancient Mariner, endlessly cataloguing the flora and fauna of far-off lands, presenting them with the shocking information that most eighteenth-century sailors could not swim, and, until Paola reminder her they were eating, describing the symptoms of scurvy.
In Through a Glass Darkly, a later book, the theme surfaces again in chapter 19:
Brunetti is puzzling over a series of numbers and symbols with his wife Paola, but they having no luck making out what they stand for. Chiara passes by on her way to her room to do her homework, asks what they're doing and is told her parents can't make any sense of a puzzle. She takes one look.
You mean the coordinates?, she asks. And then explains the degrees, minutes, latitude, longitude, and asks if her parents want her to show the location described--gets out an atlas, does so, and then heads off to do her Gallic Wars translations.
’Did she learn all that from reading those Patrick O'Brian books?’ Brunetti asked when Chiara was gone. He had intended the question as a joke, at least as a semi-joke, but Paola took it seriously and answered, 'They probably used the same notation for writing latitude and longitude in the nineteenth century: she's got the advantage of better maps.'
‘I'll never say another word against those books,’ Brunetti promised.
‘But you still won't try again to read them?’ she asked.
Ignoring the question, Brunetti said, Do we still have those nautical charts?
Copyright ©Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich
My thanks to Ms Leon.
X-posted with abandon to obriansnavy and mandc_read