In his long essay Sea Burial James Hamilton-Paterson tells an extraordinary story about the mid 19th century shipwreck of Italian writer/philosopher Giusto Forbici, also called Justus Forfex. He was the sole survivor of the wreck and found himself stranded on a waterless coral islet somewhere amongst the archipelagos of south east Asia. Hamilton-Paterson is careful not to divulge the whereabouts of this islet, though it is probably in the Sulu Sea. Forbici, he says, salvaged from the wreck nine large sealed glass jars which he at first assumed held water but later found in fact contained ink. It was an ink made out of organic materials, including that substance extruded by squid when alarmed. This ink was all he had to slake his thirst during the many weeks he subsisted on the islet. When he was rescued by a party of Bajau – sea gypsies – who had come to the islet to inter one of their leaders, Forbici was in a state of delirium in which the real and the imagined were inextricably entwined together; and for the rest of his life would try to understand this unique and paradoxical experience. It is a story any writer would feel compelled to interrogate and also one that most of us would fail to realise in all of its implications. The ink was to some degree toxic but on the other hand it kept Forbici alive long enough to survive until rescue came. Ink would also be the medium through which he would attempt to communicate both the fact of this survival and the possible meanings it might have had: as if you could write the sea with an ink that was itself a distillation from that sea. Forbici – or Hamilton-Paterson – makes this connection himself, in one of his many attempts to illuminate the meaning of his island sojourn.
I became fascinated by this story not so much because of the exigencies of the stranding or the philosophic or metaphysical speculations it occasioned – though they are seductively realised – but because of the way Forbici was saved. One day two heavy dug-out canoes appeared off his islet, one with the face of a fish, the other of a bird. These were in effect animated masks shaped over the prows of the boats, that were worked from within by two small boys; while two drummers, one in each boat, set up a complex, ever-changing rhythm of syncopated beats. The culmination of the ritual, for that is what it was, was the coming ashore of a party of men who, carrying what Forbici thinks is a wooden idol, process to the top of the island where they throw both idol and masks into a deep pool – a circular hole in the coral into which the castaway has often looked longingly, because of the succulent parrot fish which nose there among the deposits of white coral strewn along its bottom. Forbici does not follow the procession to the pool but hears, from his position under the shade of a spiky bush, a sound which he thinks is the crying of sea-gulls but is in fact the screams of the two boys, human sacrifices to accompany the corpse of the chief to its final rest. The body has been wrapped and preserved so that it indeed resembled an idol but it was not so; nor were the white fragments on the bottom of the pool pieces of coral but the bones of those who had previously been dropped in there. The men return to their boats and then come back on shore again, to secure the nine valuable glass jars in which the ink, on its way to the Dutch capital at Batavia, was stored. They take Forbici away with them too and, many weeks later, release him upon a European-inhabited shore. He makes his way back to Italy where, in his gaunt, book-lined study in Arezzo, so chosen because from nowhere in the town can you see the sea, he composes his Viaticum and his De atremento e oceanus morteque, an essay on the relationship of ink, oceans and death.
When, five or six years ago, I first read Sea Burial, as an additional and final chapter to the 2007 reprint of Hamilton-Paterson’s 1992 book, Seven-Tenths, The Sea and its Threshholds, I took it to be a piece of non-fiction; its main interest for me was, as I said, its description of a ceremony of the enigmatic Bajau, or sea gypsies, who live their lives at sea but always bury their dead on land. Now, however, having gone back to the passage again, I am not so sure. I think that, rather than a piece of descriptive non-fiction based upon the writings of the Hermit of Arezzo, it is in fact a Borgesian fable of a peculiar kind. What kind, exactly, I will attempt to say: first, some of the improbabilities. Forbici is said to have suffered eight shipwrecks (this was the last) over the period 1842-1867 but no details of any of them are given. Nor is there any indication as to how he might have ferried nine heavy glass jars of ink intact ashore at his atoll – and nothing else. Moreover, if you google his name, there are only two hits: Hamilton-Paterson’s book and a book review in which I referred to it not long after my first reading. Most of the hits in Italian refer to hair dressing salons and, if you look a little more closely at the name, both in its Italian and its Latin versions, it begins to seem fanciful: righteous scissors, just shears . . . Occam’s razor? The Jesuit scholar referenced in the first few lines of the passage, Francisco Ignacio Alzina (1610-74), is indeed real and his area of knowledge was that country we now call the Philippines, where he was a missionary, and an author of historical texts and anthologies of local, that is indigenous, literature. My Beloved Bisayans, he used to say. Hamilton-Paterson, I learned from an interview published in the Guardian, spends part of the year in a remote village in Italy and most of the rest on a tiny islet in the Sulu Sea where he lives off whatever he can gather from the sea – though he, unlike his exemplar Forbici, has a spear to fish with.
It seems clear enough that, when you put these fragments of information together, you have a background for his fable. What isn’t clear is the status of the part that so fascinated me then, and does still now. Did the reclusive English author one day observe a burial such as he describes? Is the fable then an elaborate prologue to his indelible description? Or is that too a fable, albeit of a different kind? One perhaps based upon anthropological research, perhaps even in the fugitive texts of the great Alzina? Here is Hamilton-Paterson (is that not also an improbable name?) writing about Forbici: Nights on the atoll were severing one by one the threads that still attached him to his previous life somewhere beyond the flickering horizon. To rest one ear on his gravel pillow was to hear the ocean on all sides of the atoll, rinsing and clucking and mewing. But it was also to hear it thrumming below in deep gasps like those of a labouring beast as it turns and turns a creaking water mill. These sounds filled Forbici with terror. Trapped between the starry ocean overhead and that which surrounded and undermined him, he knew himself about to be engulfed. It is just after this passage that the Bajau appear, perform their arcane ritual, and save him.