A couple of weeks ago my mother discovered, with considerable amusement, the existence of Talk Like a Pirate Day, and asked why I didn’t post about it.
“Never have,” I said. “I don’t even like pirate stories.”
“Nonsense,” was the answer. “You’ve read lots of them.”
And I protested that no, really – in fact, I rather dislike pirate stories… And I was thinking of Jack Sparrow and company, but even more of Salgari’s insufferable Sandokan and multi-coloured corsairs, without which no Italian childhood is considered complete…
“Nonsense,” said Mother again – and began to rattle off enough titles that I have to partially concede the point: I may dislike pirate stories as a whole, but certainly there are books I’ve read and quite liked in spite of the pirates. Not lots of them, definitely, but… oh well, here’s a list.
1) Treasure Island, of course – not my favourite Stevenson, but the first I ever read. Also, the kind of tale you don’t easily forget, if only for the dark, windy beginning, with the mysterious terrified guest, the Black Spot… And Silver, of course – lying, manipulative, charming, cruel… Very much The Fictional Pirate, with his parrot and wooden leg. Then again, with this novel (written, the legend goes, over two rainy weeks), Stevenson created many trappings of the genre.
2. Jospehine Tey’s The Privateer is clever, delightfully written, with touches of humour and wonderful dialogue. I just had to read this one, because I love Tey and this is, I think, her one historical novel. As we expect from the author of The Daughter of Time, Tey has fun debunking myths: far from matching Exquemelin’s cardboard monster, her Morgan is an ambitious young man with an axe to grind, endowed with a good tactical mind, a sense of humour and a flaming temper. There’s much derring-do at sea and on land, a non-conventionally unconventional romance, and a foreword about the use of language in historical novels that, on its own, is worth the price.
3. The Cup of Gold. John Steinbeck’s first Novel – and only historical. Henry Morgan again, but the mood is something else entirely. A kind of monument to the unreliable narrator – and not even in first person. Then again, it soon becomes clear that there is no trusting what this Morgan thinks – never mind what he tells. He is the sort of man who reinvents his lives (yes, more than one of them) whenever he spins his yarn, constantly tweaking to add a narrative symmetry and depth of meaning that the reader is invited to doubt… And yet, who can tell what truth remains under the encrusted lies, tweakings and reworkings? We can hardly blame his listeners for stopping to believe him early on… not that Morgan cares very much one way or the other, mind: in the end, to the descendant of the Welsh bards, telling his tales is what really matters.
4. And Captain Blood – just because. No, really – when it comes to adventure in centuries past, you can’t go wrong with Rafael Sabatini. And Peter Blood – who would be perfectly content to play country physician and grow geraniums, but finds himself entangled in the Monmouth Rebellion and indentured as a slave in Barbados – is a perfect character. Like Tey and Steinbeck, if a good deal more loosely, Sabatini based his pirate hero on Henry Morgan – whose rise from indentured slave to pirate to governor seems calculated precisely for a novel.
So… I maintain that I don’t much like pirate stories, and I certainly haven’t read lots of them – but the odd pirate I can stomach, even relish on a summer afternoon – as long as his story is well written, historically plausible, and not too drenched in clichés.
What about you, o Readers? Do you like pirate stories? What is your favourite pirate book? Did you play make-believe pirates as children? Are the genres you don’t like – but still?