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HMS Ulysses - Alistair MacLean



Trying to pass off my opinions on HMS Ulysses would be a grave error of judgement. So I shall not. I hardly get the time to read as much as I want to, and so I try to pick books which I am fairly sure I'll enjoy. A lot depends on the mood that I am in at that point in time, which enables me to stick to the end. 

And then there are stories like the HMS Ulysses. They create their own mood. They shove you, face first, into an unimaginable world which is so unfathomably different from the your own environment that you almost forget to breathe. There is an attraction, like a fly-trap; I knew all along what would happen and that it would break my heart, and yet I couldn't stop myself from hurtling towards it.

HMS Ulysses is an aggregation of numerous complicated stories, which consolidates into a fairly simple one. There are no usual twists and clifffhangers, for the simple reason that the entire premise of the story is itself one giant cliffhanger. The shock factor is omnipresent, and the thought that many of the incidents are quite possibly inspired by true events, is a nerve-racking realisation. Simply put, it is the recollection of the tragic voyage of a convoy of Allied warships in WW II. Good wartime stories are humbling, and HMS Ulysses did not fail to make me feel incredibly petty. 

There are plenty of characters, and no villains, not even the Germans, if you look at it that way; the story is hardly about revenge. What struck me, was the immense kindness with which MacLean described each character, even the apparently sour ones. One would have expected inhuman attributes typical in MacLean's protagonists, and there was no disappointment on that ground, only that this was the first time it actually seemed possible. And as I said before, it has an overwhelmingly humbling effect.

MacLean's witty style of writing has always been the key source of my attraction to his works. In HMS Ulysses, it felt rather like a cruel stab; quite unlike the cheekiness that emanates with his dialogues in the other stories. And then there were the incomparable descriptions of the inanimate factors - the unforgiving weather, the beastly seas and the most remarkable of all, the ship herself. So lovingly has MacLean written of the battle-worn HMS Ulysses that the steel body seems to breathe more life than the crew aboard, who were inching closer to lifelessness with every passing minute. 

And after all these years of reading Alistair MacLean (I started in my early teens), I finally realise why reviewers are so bummed about MacLean's later works not being quite the same. HMS Ulysses easily is one of the best books I've read so far and every other novel of his pales in its comparison. Yes, there is relentless grief in this account, and I could barely shrug off the feeling even when I had shut the book, but it stands out as one of those few books, like To Kill A Mockingbird, which led me to think, to be more appreciative and urged me to be more human. Because HMS Ulysses is all about the ship and her crew - men and machines of infinite resilience, and the utter, irreparable waste in their loss.

And never, in my memory, has Tennyson's lines - which aptly introduce the book - made more sense than in HMS Ulysses...

"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
                          

P.S. It would be difficult to narrow down on any one character who stands out in my memory, but if I decide to be truthful to myself, I should say Ralston. 

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