By ALISON McCULLOCH, New York Times Book Review, Published: November 17, 2011e
Just like the subjects of her singular new collection of stories, Sabina Murray is an explorer — someone with a hankering to visit places others tend to avoid. Where better for such a writer to poke around than inside the heads of those extraordinary individuals who themselves set off to survey the unknown?
The subject of “Fish,” the longest story and one of the most satisfying, is Mary Kingsley, an Englishwoman who led a sheltered life taking care of her sick mother before setting out to explore West Africa at the age of 30. Murray’s Kingsley talks to fairies, is stoical in the face of adversity, has a sharp sense of humor and doesn’t find out who she really is until she’s deep in the wilds of Africa: “Here’s Mary, she thinks, here I am, as if she has been waiting for herself in the jungle all these years — waiting to be found. . . . Here I am, she thinks. Pleased to make my acquaintance.”
Another of Murray’s triumphs is “Translation,” about Antonio Pigafetta, a nobleman from Vicenza who chronicled Ferdinand Magellan’s 16th-century journey of circumnavigation (or, as Magellan puts it here, “that rich guy who bought his way onto the boat”). Magellan is both a ruthless captain and a friendly nag, a deeply contradictory man who can have a sailor strangled for committing sodomy, then breezily rib Pigafetta about being gay. He is also a man in whose leadership Pigafetta ultimately loses faith, particularly for Magellan’s determination to convert the natives of Cebu to Christianity. “I commend you for having all their idols burned, ours being much more handsome,” Pigafetta tells him. “But Ferdinand, I would less fear disaster than all of this success.” (It is at this point that Magellan dies in battle.)
Murray writes of Italian noblemen, African chiefs, Russian prisoners, Australian Aborigines, even Aztec kings; of times and places, horrors and joys; of oceans, deserts, starvation — of quite simply everything — very beautifully, bringing it all close to us, to here, to now. But the historical detail needed to orient the reader and characters sometimes weighs heavily on her delicate prose. (A similar strain marks Murray’s dark and twisted 2004 novel, “A Carnivore’s Inquiry,” which takes frequent detours into historical and mythological accounts of cannibals.) The story “Periplus,” for example, is told from the perspective of a 24-year-old Jesuit (also named Murray) working on a scholarly paper about Hanno. As her narrator wrestles with how to approach his subject’s uncertain journey, Murray’s reflections struggle to rise above date- and detail-laden passages about Carthage and Laocoön.
The final story, “On Sakhalin,” is Chekhov’s, and it made me sorry I hadn’t yet read the master’s own account in his “Island of Sakhalin,” from which Murray takes her epigraph. Sakhalin — “the ends of the earth” — is a place where men are chained to wheelbarrows and the floggings are well attended in part because there’s no theater or music. On his deathbed, Murray’s Chekhov tells his wife he’s considering making it the subject of a play. A comedy, of course.