Patrick O’Brian on Land

Supposedly people are drawn to fiction that fills a need in their lives, so that lonely women read romance novels, and, as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey observed in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), “dull men in offices read detective stories.”  Exceptions occur, so that men who have traveled a lot and who enjoy firearms tend to prefer adventure stories, from Treasure Island (1883) to King Solomon’s Mines (1885).  In that line is Patrick O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand (1954).

O’Brian (1914-2000) is best known for his popular series of twenty sea-faring novels featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  Published between 1969 and 1999, they have fiercely loyal fans, and in 2003 the series inspired a theatrical film, Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe.  The movie won two Academy Awards, and the books earned O’Brian the status of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, conferred by Queen Elizabeth II.  These stories abound in complex characters, vivid descriptions, and minute and accurate details; all the same, the dialogue and arcana of nautical life during the early 1800s leave some readers bewildered and bored.

For those of us who want to like O’Brian’s sea stories but can’t finish one, The Road to Samarcand comes to the rescue.  Unfortunately, that tale set on dry land remains relatively unknown:  O’Brian’s obituary in The Daily Telegraph made no mention of it, and his obituary in The Economist simply said, “Several pre-Aubrey novels sank without a trace.”  For a re-issue of this pre-Aubrey novel, Kirkus Reviews (15 May, 2007) said of it, “A likable if far-fetched jaunt, O’Brian lacks the mastery of his material which he will show in the Aubrey/Maturin series.”

Without debating what adventure story is not far-fetched, or whether far-fetchedness necessarily makes an adventure story likable, it is safe to say that O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand stands ready for someone whose desert island library would include John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.  As with those far-fetched adventures, this one has pursuers and pursued, and as with Treasure Island, it features a teenage boy with the unlikely daring and maturity of Joe and Frank Hardy.  Like King Solomon’s Mines, it recounts an improbable trek across terrain that for most of us seems as mythical as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Oddly enough, the road to Samarcand begins in the China Seas, where our heroes are sailing their schooner, the Wanderer.  Our heroes are Derrick, orphan son of American missionaries; Terence Sullivan, his maternal uncle and master of the Wanderer; Sandy Ross, a Scottish friend of Sullivan and business partner; Olaf Svenssen, a Swedish crewman; Li Han, the ship’s Chinese cook.  Worth mentioning is Derrick’s faithful half-mastiff, Chang.  Once on land, having survived a typhoon, they meet up as arranged in Tchao-King with Professor Ayrton, Derrick’s father’s cousin and an archaeologist from Oxford.

On ship, the discussion had been what to do about Derrick’s education, whether to send him to school in England, Scotland, or the United States.  His preference, to stay on board and learn to become a master mariner, was vetoed, and even Li Han argued for the boy being sent to school, telling him, “Why, in time you might be an official and never do anything for remainder of earthly existence.  You could grow long fingernails, and become obese and dignified.”  Silently, Derrick took into account that his friend admired not only Confucius, but also President William McKinley.

Enter the rumpled and tweedy Professor Ayrton to offer a compromise:  School after an archaeological journey to Samarcand.  Along the way, the professor would teach Derrick ancient Greek while keeping an eye out for ruins and what were then called Oriental antiquities.  Despite the professor’s gift for languages, his pedantic approach to learning American slang casts doubt on his grasp of reality.

Sullivan and Ross decide to accompany them, uneasy with the professor’s seeming obliviousness to the dangers, whether geographical or political.  When Sullivan offers to teach Ayrton how to shoot, the professor dismisses the idea, saying that surely along the way there will always be someone who can shoot game for food.

Shooting something for dinner being the least of their worries looming ahead, the Wanderer goes into dry dock, and Olaf, Li Han, and Chang round out the party.  Joined by Chingiz, a young Mongol nobleman known to Sullivan and who saves Derrick’s life, they set out from the city they knew as Peking, eventually traversing the old Silk Road that from the days before the Roman Empire connected East and West.

A born storyteller, O’Brian knew well the old rule for writers of fiction:  Always keep your hero in trouble.  At every turn the expedition encounters unpredictable hazards, from being entrusted with rare Chinese carved jade tablets to contending with rival warlords, and as they enter the snowy mountains, ever lurking is the threat of Yeti.

Keenly aware of the century’s most pernicious scourges, state socialism and militant Islam, O’Brian confronted his heroes with Soviet troops zealous to advance international Communism, and the carved jade tablets must be guarded from Muslim iconoclasts.  As Ayrton explains, since “there is an element of religious fanaticism in their attack, they may, if victorious, go so far as to destroy” the ancient jades, “many of which, I am glad to say, are graven images, and anathema to these bigots.”

Of course, a reader with sensitivities refined sixty years after O’Brian wrote could indict the book for its own kind of bigotry.  Someone trained in North Atlantic suburban comfort to be perpetually offended and aggrieved, where daring to disagree brands one a hater, might be triggered by an all-male cast of characters, not to mention pipe tobacco and guns.  Those readers are advised to avoid this book and to seek therapy from R. Lee Ermey.

Page-turning adventure, however far-fetched, puts O’Brian’s story in a long literary tradition that extends from Homer’s Odyssey to the Travels of Marco Polo, from stories by Rudyard Kipling to the cartoon exploits of Jonny Quest.  This unsung predecessor to O’Brian’s acclaimed chronicles of Aubrey and Maturin shares their cliff-hanging suspense as well as their belief in friendship, loyalty, and pressing on, come what may.  A rainy day, some Darjeeling, and being transported through a book onto the road to Samarcand:  As Li Han would say, “What felicity!”

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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