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Weekly Alibi The Rhythm of the Waves

Alesandro Baricco's "Ocean Sea"

By Valerie Yarberry

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: 

Ocean Sea by Alesandro Baricco (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $23)

What's surprising about Ocean Sea is that its cover accurately predicts its contents. The dark and complex Georgia O'Keeffe painting "Wave, Night, 1928" is an extraordinary preface for a novel that is equally dark and complex. After close inspection, it becomes obvious that the picture replicates the ocean in its depth and intensity. Ocean Sea itself mirrors this image: At the outset, it appears almost incomprehensible, but soon evolves into a deeply layered insight into humanity.

Ocean Sea is the story of several people who converge at the ambiguous Almayer Inn, a place seemingly overlooked by the "outside world." It is an oasis that one only comes upon by chance and is so esoteric, even the locals aren't sure it really exists. The inn appears to occupy a spiritual rather than physical space, where the passage of time is irrelevant: "It could be perfection -- an image for divine eyes -- a world that happens, that is all."

Author Alessandro Baricco gives very few contextual clues, save the constant north wind and references to distant, unfamiliar-sounding towns. But rather than alienating readers from the story, Baricco's treatment of his setting elevates it from nebulous to timeless.

All of the characters who end up at the Almayer are desperately seeking something, whether it be love, revenge or absolution. All have come to the Almayer as their last option. "The sea suddenly seemed to have been waiting for them forever ... patiently perfecting itself, with the sole and precise intention of offering itself as a miraculous unguent for their afflictions of body and soul ... "

Elisewin is a terminally ill 16-year-old who is brought to the shore by her father. Every available medical option has been exhausted, and her last chance is to be cured by immersion in the ocean. Although the novel is told primarily in the third person, Elisewin's curious omniscience often reveals her companions' secrets. Even when her companions are fixated on their dreams and memories, Elisewin remains keenly aware of her surroundings. "The world outside is still there. You can do whatever you like, but you can always be sure that you will find it in its place, always. It's hard to believe, but that's the way it is."

Plasson is renowned for the portraits he paints of the wealthy and noble. He would begin each painting with the subject's eyes, the most telling feature. He abandons his trade, however, as he has grown tired of "pornography." Every evening, he is taken by boat to the Almayer, where he paints images of the sea. He cannot begin, though, as he cannot find the eyes of the sea. So he paints on his canvases with sea water, knee-deep in the tide, searching for a starting point.

Professor Bartleboom is in love, even though he has not yet met his lover. Every night he writes beautiful love letters to a woman he knows he will meet. And when they meet, he will present her with the mahogany box filled with his letters and say, "I was waiting for you." This scenario is his ideal, but is eventually played out with ironic results. Bartleboom's second passion is science. While at the inn, he compiles data for his Encyclopedia of Limits, a work that catalogues the points at which nature ends. For instance, when Plasson is struggling to determine the point at which the ocean begins, Bartleboom is calculating the exact place where the tide ceases.

Among the other visitors of the Almayer is Ann Deverïa, who was sent by her husband to the ocean to be "cured" of her infidelity. Ann spends hours pacing along the shore, waiting for her lover to find her. There is also Father Pluche, who is responsible for Elisewin during her recuperation. Ocean Sea is often punctuated by the poetic prayers Father Pluche composes for himself and his companions.

The novel's rhythmic, lulling tone is rapidly interrupted with the appearance of a sailor who calls himself Adams. He and his crew were abandoned on a raft in the ocean, aboard which evolves a horrific display of humanity's extremes. Adams' craving for revenge eventually unearths his own volatile history and a labyrinthine tangle of associations between the other characters.

In the end, Ocean Sea proves itself to be more than a tale of wayward souls -- it is poetry that has all the rhythm and depth of the ocean itself.

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