The Lost Flying Boat
The Lost Flying Boat is the latest novel in Alan Sillitoe’s continuing literary search for some sort of moral and metaphysical order in the chaos of postwar (World War II) existence—a search which began less in his celebrated first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), than in its immediate successors, The General (1960) and Key to the Door (1961). Like The General, The Lost Flying Boat is a philosophical thriller to an almost parabolic nature, and, like Key to the Door, it draws on Sillitoe’s experience as a radio operator in the Royal Air Force (1946-1949) to create a central character who has “been trained to create order from a multiplicity of signals” but who finds it immensely difficult to solve the confusion in himself.
The novel’s dust jacket compares it to B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1935), and certainly it is the story of an “odysseyin which men become desperate and dangerousfrom which few will return,” but it has even more striking connections with other mythic journeys, such as those of Odysseus and Jason and most especially with Ishmael’s metaphysical whaling voyage in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). Like Ishmael, the narrator of Sillitoe’s novel, Adcock, has signed on for a dangerous sea voyage “when life on land looked too bleak for comfort.” His marriage has broken up in great part because he could not abide an earthbound life which did not offer him any possibility of answers to the substantial questions concerning life and death:Instead of being a shop assistant, I preferred listening to the traffic of the spheres.My spirit wanted to reach space where noises multiplied, in the hope that they would provide me with an answer as to why I was alive. I would stave off death by listening for the last message from ship or aircraft, or even while sending one of my own, and forget that I did not know what life was all about.
His spiritual lassitude is appropriate to that of the rest of the crew of the flying boat Aldebaran, all of them flattened and drained of meaning by life in Great Britain after a war that did not end in genuine peace and which saw the departure of the captains and the kings and, with them, the larger worldview of the British public. (Or, as Nash, the chief gunner, puts it, “There’s eff-all in Blighty, these days.”) Yet where they find solace in alcohol or gambling or simply in action, Adcock seeks his solace and his answers in alphabets and anagrams, in codes and signs; like a medieval Cabalist, he seeks to interpret everything he sees and hears. “Of all the things dead and living,” he says, “only God has no name, but the newly discovered is immediately delineated on becoming known.” Throughout the novel, he seeks God through the names of known things, only to give in finally to bare action and impulse, stripped of language, of thought, and of easily interpretable meaning.
In Malaya, Adcock and his fellow military operators called anyone sending Morse whom they could not identify as OOJERKERPIV, a nonsense word of their invention signifying unknown, as though by naming the unknown, even nonsensically, they had somehow solved its mystery. Nevertheless, the unknowns in the great journey in the novel remain, like God, unnamed and unnameable.
Adcock does try to read signs and portents before the voyage begins. Captain Bennett smokes Partagas cigars, and Adcock notices that the word spelled backwards is SAGA TRAP. He starts to mention his discovery, but, as with most of his later discoveries, he keeps it to himself. He labels the crew “Alpha Rats” after Alpheratz, a star in the constellation Pegasus, an appropriate name for the crew of a great flying craft (for, after all, Pegasus was a great flying horse) and also for a crew blindly risking their lives like rats aboard a sinking ship. He listens intently to the messages and fragments of messages on his radio, interpreting them as best he can. The inner voice, however, does not speak to him and interpret the events he witnesses until twenty-five years later, when he tells the tale. Like Ishmael, he participates in great events and alone survives to report and interpret them. Yet even in his rendering and reading of the events, the unknown, the OOJERKERPIV, remains at the vital center.
Bennett, the Captain Ahab of this novel, is driven by an obsessive desire for freedom, a freedom he cannot find at home in Great Britain nor even in the freedom of flight (for what goes up must come down). He despises the loss of spirit and enterprise in the postwar world and yearns to be free of all political and social restraints:The twentieth century has been poisoned by two bestial systems that have tainted everyone whether they embraced them or fought against them. For myself, I want to push this expedition through so that I can be independent of all systems. To become rich is the only defence against being without hope.
Bennett knows the location of a large cache of buried Nazi gold in the French Kerguelen Islands near Antarctica. He gathers his wartime flying crew with one exception (the radio operator, who is replaced by Adcock), finds a financial backer, and outfits a war surplus Sunderland flying boat to fly to the islands, unearth the gold, and fly it on to Perth, Australia. They will be refueled by a ship, the Difda, which is scheduled to meet them at the islands. The elaborate plan and the...
(The entire section is 2241 words.)