Patrick O’Brian: The Ionian Mission

The Ionian Mission is the eighth chapter in the adventures of Aubrey and Maturin – although “adventures” might be just a tad misleading for this particular volume. As O’Brian continues his series he also continues to play with and explore the roman fleuve form, quite obviously enjoying the freedom from structural constraints the serial format grants him.

For the umpteenth part in a potentially infinite series of novels there is no need to bother with even the most basic Aristotelian structure of having a beginning, a middle and an end; instead, just like a chapter in a novel, it has to fit in with the parts surrounding it and the overall picture, a mosaic piece rather than an independent entity, part of a whole rather than something that needs to stand on its own. This appears to have suited O’Brian perfectly – even the early Aubrin-Maturin novels, before he was planning them as a series, are characterized by a free, easy flow rather than a tightly drawn structure and as the series progresses O’Brian happily throws all limiting constraints of a formal framework overboard, in the end jettisoning even plausibility as his Napoleonic War drags on an improbably long time, stretching the series’ timeframe far beyond any realistic limits.

This time, O’Brian’s target seems to have been to find out with just how few things actually happening he could get away with – there have been earlier volumes which have been low on action but in The Ionian Mission absolutely nothing at all happens until the novel’s final fifteen pages or so. And by “nothing at all” I do mean nothing at all – in spite of several attempts to engage French ships, to Jack Aubrey’s increasing frustration there is no action actually happening, engagements always avoided at the last moment by the singularly evasive French. Instead, we get an extensive portrait of life on sea at the start of the nineteenth century, with special emphasis on songs and poetry (and yes, that is to be taken quite literally, too – the reader should be prepared for an uncommon lot of  – really not very good – naval poetry when embarking on The Ionian Mission).

But as it turns out (not really surprisingly, for anyone who has followed the series this far) is that Captain Aubrey’s frustration is the reader’s delight. A novel describing nothing but the daily routine life on a Royal Navy vessel at the start of the nineteenth century might at first glance not sound like exciting reading material for anyone who does not happen to have a special interest in that particular subject, in fact from the bare description it sounds exceedingly boring. But somehow, Patrick O’Brian manages to make reading about sailors and officers going about their work and relaxing afterwards during a lengthy sea voyage appear like the most fascinating thing ever and not for a single moment through three hundred pages of non-plot, non-adventure and non-action did I feel even faintly bored. In a way, the reader becomes both Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin when reading an Aubrey-Maturin novel: like the former he enjoys navigating the sea of O’Brian’s prose, gliding smoothly and easily, always with a favourable wind at his back, while, like the latter, delighting in all the wonders he encounters along the way, the original  similes and metaphors, the well-turned periods, the vivid descriptions. The Ionian Mission presents readers with the pure essence of the Aubrey-Maturin series, stripped bare of everything that is extraneous to it until all that remains is the flow of O’Brian’s language; and this novel proves conclusively that he really can write about absolutely anything and make it a joy to read, that his prose breathes life into even the most dry-seeming subject matter, and that even the most trifling and insignificant things sparkle when he touches them with the magic wand of his pen.


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