Critical Evaluation

In Far Tortuga, Peter Matthiessen contrasts the naturalness of the sea, where the wind and waves can be saviors or enemies, with intrusions into the natural order. As the crew of the Lillias Eden points out derisively, American tourists in their boats befoul the Caribbean just as the United States as a country pollutes the sea with debris from atomic-bomb testing. To the crew, the rules of the sea must be respected, and violators run the risk of nature’s displeasure. The turtlers find comfort in routine, and they dislike changes in the ways they have performed their jobs. Making adjustments for the volatility of nature is just another routine.

Environmental concerns are central to most of Matthiessen’s fiction and nonfiction, and Far Tortuga can be seen as an environmental parable. The crew of the Lillias Eden frequently express their admiration, even love, for the green turtle. The turtlers abide in nature, but it is hardly benign, with storms coming out of nowhere to make their tasks more difficult and even threaten their lives.

After the deaths of his shipmates, Speedy releases a turtle he had planned to eat, a respectful gesture seemingly offered to redress an imbalance in nature.

The island from which Far Tortuga takes its name is presented as the ultimate goal to be reached by the Lillias Eden. The island is an unspoiled paradise comparable to Eden, and it offers the best possible turtling grounds. Arriving there is an achievement in itself. The island of Far Tortuga slowly takes on mythic proportions over the course of the novel, and it appears that the turtlers will go there instead of to heaven when they die—in a sense, they do. After the ship hits the reef and sinks, Far Tortuga can be glimpsed shimmering in the sunrise.

Matthiessen looks at the consequences of physical and emotional isolation. The nature of the Caribbean as a collection of small islands spread out over 2,500 miles isolates the crewmembers. Within this context the Caymans are especially small. The novel, which grew out of “To the Miskito Bank,” a 1967 article Matthiessen wrote for The New Yorker about a trip on a turtle boat, is both an exploration of the mundane and a...

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