Man vs Man vs Nature: Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch

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The hero of Paul Lynch’s novel Beyond the Sea, Bolivar, is only a fisherman. Or so he insists, to himself and others. Somewhere along the west coast of Central or South America (the country isn’t specified), he lives a simple life. Middle-aged, single, seemingly without a past to speak of, he’s content to spend his days fishing, drinking with a few similarly down-at-the-heels friends, and idly flirting with Rosa, the proprietor of the local café. She gives no indication of returning his interest, but he takes this in stride, ever the optimist.

Optimism is a good quality for a fisherman, and Bolivar exemplifies the classic merry seafarer: tough, weathered, good-humored, ready for whatever nature has in store. As he prepares one morning to set out on his next trip, bad weather is in the forecast. “I have not yet met a storm that is the boss of me,” he assures Hector, the teenager who is to serve as a last-minute substitute for Bolivar’s regular fishing partner, whom Bolivar can’t seem to locate.

The plan is to stop at a place miles away from shore, cast a baited line, spend at least a night on the water, and return with their haul. The sea, however, has other plans. The storm hits, and by the time it clears, the pair realize they’ve been blown far out to sea. With their radio and GPS waterlogged and useless, the boat’s motor dead, they find themselves adrift and alone.

So begins an odyssey of survival. Will they make it? This is the natural question for the reader of any lost-at-sea tale. But the psychological twists and turns within and between Bolivar and Hector—two very different men—are what drive this novel. Indeed, they are what make the reader care, with increasing emotional investment, about whether they do make it.

At first, the pair are hopeful. Surely a search is underway. Bolivar himself has rescued fishermen in similar distress, he tells Hector. But tension develops as the days pass. Bolivar’s initial reservations about Hector’s worth as a seaman are reinforced by the latter’s reluctance to help manage the boat, a reluctance that Bolivar sees as a fundamental flaw in his character. Hector’s resentment at having been dragged into this situation boils over; in a rage he destroys the motor by beating it with a wrench, though it’s already broken. Later, Bolivar lashes out in kind, grabbing Hector’s phone out of his hand (there’s no cell signal; he’s only looking at photos) and tossing it overboard.

Keeping a simple plot from becoming repetitive or tedious is no easy task, but Lynch is up to the challenge. The journey is not short on action, even if much of that action is small in scale—in such extreme circumstances, minor events can have life-and-death consequences.

At times, the pair’s spirits are lifted by some fortuitous event—a welcome rain that comes just as they’re about to drop from thirst; finding a useful piece of garbage floating by; the procurement of fish and turtles to eat—that brings them closer together. When times are bad, though, Hector is susceptible to depression, which Bolivar continually tries to talk him out of, varying between jovial optimism, tough love, and bursts of anger whenever Hector does something detrimental to their chances of survival. It’s a battle of wills: Bolivar is convinced that Hector’s fundamental outlook is one of negation, fear, shrinking from life. When Hector begins scratching tally marks into the hull to count the days, Bolivar upbraids him—“We are not in prison”—scornful of the boy’s pessimism. He grows increasingly frustrated trying to comprehend Hector’s point of view. The third-person narrator relates Bolivar’s thoughts on the matter: “You try to speak to a man’s mind. His way of thinking. A man listens or does not listen and if he won’t, why is it he won’t? What is the won’t in a man’s mind? What is the won’t in his mind?”

Particularly maddening to Bolivar is Hector’s religiosity. The boy fashions a Virgin idol out of some wire and plastic and spends hours engaged in fervent prayer. Bolivar is a practical man; he has faith in his own resourcefulness, in man’s capacity for saving himself. He sees Hector’s faith as a kind of giving up. “Look, this is no time to give in,” he implores Hector after they’ve been at sea for months. “You must have faith.” Hector answers forlornly, “All I have left is my faith.”

Eventually Hector’s mind threatens to get the best of him. His overriding obsession is the possibility that his girlfriend, giving him up for dead, is now with another man. The thought replays itself mechanically, his mind having little else with which to occupy itself. Interwoven with his anxiety is a sense of disembodiment, one of several mental symptoms induced by the extreme stress of his situation. He tells Bolivar, “Each day now I am watching a part of me that is not a part of me. That is the part that is here. All the other parts of me are not here. They are back there.” His confusion and terror bring him to wonder if he is dreaming—or if, perhaps, God is dreaming him.

Bolivar experiences a similar detachment, but he tries to use it constructively: he jogs laps around the boat, picturing himself running through the countryside back home, savoring memories of simple pleasures from what now seems like a former life. Most poignantly, he remembers the daughter he hasn’t seen for years, having abandoned her and her mother. His shame and regret over this loom ever larger as his exile continues and his hope for rescue diminishes.

The prose is concise, with off-kilter syntax that imparts to it a somewhat antique quality (“He checks again the rain barrel”; “Day after day he is meeting such thoughts that are strange to him”), and the story is told in brief, compact sections ranging from a single paragraph to a couple of pages. It’s a style that in the hands of many writers can result in a chilly effect, but Lynch manages the opposite: he uses brevity to keep the heat on, in terms of emotion and drama. At the same time, the narrative carries considerable intellectual weight; brevity here does not translate to fast and easy reading. On the contrary—the prose, while fluid, is packed with enough ideas to make you want to pause and reflect after every section, as when reading poetry.

A conception of the sea as a life-giving but malevolent force—can’t live with it, can’t live without it—is, of course, at the heart of many a maritime tale. Certainly the truth of this idea is being thrust upon us with every alarming new report on the pitiable state of the oceans. It’s probably inevitable that any seafaring novels from here on in (ones that take place in the present or the future, at least) will address the environmental crisis. It’s likely just as inevitable that the topic will become as tediously commonplace in fiction as it is in the news. Fortunately, Beyond the Sea deals with it by means of a brilliant irony: the ominous quantities of garbage that litter the ocean actually aid in Bolivar and Hector’s survival (for a time). They pull edible barnacles from a piece of styrofoam; they use plastic containers to collect rainwater, plastic sheeting to protect themselves from exposure; they fashion fishing implements from various scrap materials. “This sea is like a supermarket,” Bolivar remarks with characteristic insouciance. There’s the suggestion of a fatalistic embrace of disaster, turning it to your advantage as a means of maintaining your sanity, even your existence. Midway into their peril, Bolivar entertains the notion that maybe this new life isn’t so bad, after all: “He speaks to himself the feeling that it could always be like this. What need is there of much else? You eat and you sleep and you do simple tasks. Now we are truly alive.”

The world tosses us about throughout our lives like flotsam on the waves. The question posed from opposite sides by Bolivar and Hector is: Do you deny this state of affairs, holding out for something better and risking the consequences—or do you abide and live as best you can in spite of it?

Matt Walker is a writer living in New York. More from this author →