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The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouk


I remember that there have been some books that have left me utterly sucker-punched: To Kill a Mockingbird (my favourite), Stuart - A Life Backwards, Birdsong, The Catcher in the Rye (my second favourite), Apollo 13 and HMS Ulysses. (I'm sure there are more, but these are the few that come of the top of my head). These books have mostly made me walk around like zombies, thinking and re-thinking and feeling incredibly insignificant and ashamed of my pettiness. When I recall my feelings during or after having finished these books, I can almost pin-point the instant of the change in my thought process. 

Then there are others - Rebecca, The Casual Vacancy and quite possibly I Capture the Castle for instance, upon finishing which I have heaved a sigh, smiled to myself and thought, "Now, that's a proper thinking man's book", not quite realising that I did not really understand all the thinking that went into the pages; at least not until much later. My mother put it down - perhaps accurately - to lack of experience. And to this list of seemingly clear-cut yet suspiciously nuanced works, do I add the gem of The Caine Mutiny. Sorry. The Caine Mutiny (my third favourite). 

I have gone through the history of how I came about the book before, but it was far from hailing distance of HMS Ulysses. It is a completely different category of work and is not full of the pathos and maddening sense of futility that HMS Ulysses encompasses. Rather, the book is very clear-headed, with very few words spent on the emotional aspect of the characters. The story is about the crew aboard the US Navy destroyer-minesweeper Caine in the WW II, led by Captain Queeg. There are no blistering engagements, no frothing enemies, nor any nerve-wracking aerial-straffing that I've - it seems illogically - come to associate with naval warfare stories. The Caine Mutiny does what all war stories do: bring out the human nature in a condition of unprecedented danger and fear, only that in Wouk's work, the body count is next to negligible.  

The story follows the timeline of the clever, smart and pampered Willie Keith, who signs up for the US Navy, leaving behind his anxious parents and sweetheart May Wynn. Keith is assigned to the ageing Caine, which carries aboard her tired back, a bunch of men - some hardened, some yet to be so, but each with a distinct streak. The men are led by Captain Queeg, and honestly I do not know what to say of him. I cannot speak highly of him; in fact even being neutral about him makes me uncomfortable. The title of the book is suggestive enough anyway. Queeg takes up a significant portion of the narrative, and makes the blood boil. 

Then there are the other key characters: First Officer Maryk, Lieutenant Keefer and Keith himself, besides the others who appear on-and-off but enough to prove the point. Reading through the chapters, one almost feels the strain of knowing people, which is always quite, quite unlike the first impression and hence is somewhat harsh in both a positive and negative way.  Even the men and women on the shore - May Wynn, Mr. and Mrs. Keith, Greenwald - exhibit layers right upto the last word concerning them. It is almost a crash-course on the study of the human mind, behaviour and the anomalies. 

The incident which triggered the epoymous mutiny is brilliantly described. It is not as outrageously captured as in HMS Ulysses or any of MacLean's other sea-warfare novels, but enough to strike home the sense of incredible danger and hair's breadth from death. There was a recurring theme between HMS Ulysses and The Caine Mutiny, about the inability to juxtapose the savagery of the sea and the mind-numbing hysteria it breeds, next to the mundane imaginations of those on land, and the frustrating effect these can have on the same crew when questioned about their actions at the fateful instant. Both books have brought out the fact, The Caine Mutiny more extensively so, that the horror of the situation is locked away in the minds of the victim, and are not accessible to the common folk. Perhaps that is true for every trauma. 

The Caine Mutiny is only about the men and women and their basal instincts. From what I gather, their behaviours remain quite the same both on a sunny afternoon on a garden chair and on the splintering deck of the ship plunging in the towering, black waves. In most situations, it is easy to avoid liking or disliking the behaviour, but there comes a time when it becomes the deciding factor in the end or beginning of something. 

Like I said, I strongly suspect this is one of those books, especially like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye, that reveals different valid meanings to me at different stages of my life. By far this year, this is the best that I have read. And if my past experiences are anything to go by, it would remain so for several months to come.


Image courtesy http://www.abebooks.co.uk/blog/index.php/2012/11/14/herman-wouk-still-laying-down-the-lay-at-97/ 

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