‘Pigafetta’ By Felicitas Hoppe (Review)

While my German Literature Month reading in previous years was meticulously planned, 2017 has seen a more relaxed approach, with most books chosen on the spur of the moment.  That’s certainly true of today’s choice, a book I acquired on the same bookshop trip where I picked up my introduction to Korean-German philosophy.  It’s a shortish novel, by a writer I’ve heard good things about, and the journey described inside puts my own (vicarious) November travels to shame…

Felicitas Hoppe’s Piggafetta is a rather strange book in which an unnamed female protagonist travels around the world by sea.  Forget any ideas you might have of a luxury cruise, however; the ship in question is designed for cargo, and the narrator is one of a handful of passengers who are more tolerated than welcomed by the crew.  Embarking in Hamburg, we cross the Atlantic, with brief stops on the US coast, before cruising through the Panama Canal en route to Sydney.  Our journey then takes us northwards once more, with a trip through the Suez Canal awaiting us before our return to Germany.

In truth, though, the cities and countries visited are irrelevant, as this is a story of the sea.  The bulk of the novel is spent in transit as the narrator tries to pass the time on a vessel that’s not really equipped for a leisurely transit.  As we power through the waves, crossing the equator twice and risking the wrath of King Neptune, one question frequently emerges: what exactly is the woman seeking from the voyage, and what on earth are we doing here?

Pigafetta is an entertaining novel, suffused with liberal doses of humour, but it’s certainly a book to try the patience of readers expecting anything like a coherent plot or easily decipherable themes.  This confusion starts with the title, which appears to refer to someone, or something, on the ship, an imaginary companion with whom the woman speaks from time to time (and who appears to share her cabin).  We never learn any more details about this mysterious entity, and I’m not entirely sure it really exists…

The fellow passengers and crew do exist, and a strange bunch they are.  The narrator’s closest friend on the ship is an English geographer who pores over maps (and the letters of Winston Churchill), while they are joined later on the trip by an American peach grower who is rather disappointed by the spartan nature of the vessel.  The most colourful of the passengers is a French plumber, who is constantly drunk, unable to communicate, and prone to outbursts when least expected:

Da hob der Klempner plötzlich den Kopf, schlug mit der flachen Hand auf den Tisch und schrie die schöne und einfache Predigt der Klempner gegen das Heimweh und die Seekrankheit im Auge des Sturms: TRAVAILLEZ ET MANGEZ!
p.17 (Fischer Verlag, 2014)

At this point, the plumber suddenly raised his head, slapped his hand flat on the table and bellowed the beautiful and simple plumber’s sermon against home- and sea-sickness in the eye of the storm: TRAVAILLEZ ET MANGEZ!
*** (my translation)

A noble sentiment, indeed.  As for the crew, now they’re *really* strange…

However, the trip is not all there is to Pigafetta.  The book is divided into nine sections, and at the start of each part, there is a brief piece, usually two or three pages in length, in which the writer/narrator talks about a story, her family and the captain of a ship.  All of this pushes us into seeing the main action with rather different eyes, perhaps as a story told by the narrator of these short pieces.  Hoppe wrote the novel after taking a similar trip (I’m not sure if it was on a similar ship…), and there’s a definite sense of fiction and reality bleeding into each other, with the dividing line between the story and narrator difficult to discern.

There’s a fair amount to disconcert the reader over the course of the voyage.  The unchanging days and the constant winding back of clocks as we move ever westward, when added to the prospect of seeing the same handful of faces very day, bring with them a sense of ennui, and even claustrophobia.  With no land in sight, the real world fades from the mind, and we can imagine ourselves transported back to Greek myths, on our own odyssey, or on board the Argo.  When the woman eventually sees the ship on dry land, there’s a certain hint of this in her description of the grounded vessel:

…zum ersten Mal sah ich mit eigenen Augen, was ich vorher nur wußte, die ganze Schönheit meines namenlosen Schiffes, seinen abgestumpften, matt glänzenden Leib, die Nase des Ruders, die schlafende Schraube, den Schmutz und den Rost, die blätternde Farbe, die endlose Müdigkeit des zweijährigen Tiers. (p.131)

… for the first time, I saw with my own eyes what I had to that point merely known, the complete beauty of my nameless ship, its dulled, matt-gleaming body, the tip of the rudder, the sleeping propeller, the dirt and the rust, the peeling paint, the constant fatigue of the two-year-old creature. ***

You could almost imagine her as a modern Jason, falling asleep in the shade of the tired ship and being crushed by a falling section of railing.

With its short sections, wry tone and fascinating characters, Pigafetta is a book that should be a pleasure to read, but in truth it’s one I found rather inaccessible.  I’m just as happy as the next reader, probably more so, to suspend my disbelief and deliver myself into the hands of a writer, trusting that all will become clear and that the meaning behind the book will eventually be revealed.  However, on finishing Hoppe’s novel, I couldn’t help but feel that there wasn’t much to it.  Yes, it was well written, and many passages were entertaining and thought-provoking (or both), but if there was something to get from the novel, I certainly didn’t find it.  And I have absolutely no idea who or what Pigafetta was, or what he/it was meant to represent…

Still, it was a pleasant journey, and there’s enough there in Hoppe’s writing to suggest that I’ll try more of her books in the future – which is not something many of my readers will be able to do.  You see, as far as I can tell, virtually none of her work has made it into English so far (all I’ve found is a set of five short stories, Picnic of the Virtues, translated by Katy Derbyshire for Readux Books…).  Whatever my views on this particular book, when you consider her output in German, and the list of prizes she’s been awarded (including the prestigious Georg-Büchner-Preis in 2012), that’s a disappointing discovery.  Let’s hope this oversight is remedied before too long so that you can make your own minds up as to who, or what, Pigafetta is all about.

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