The Last Bookaneer
by Matthew Pearl
“When they dreamed of turning iron and metal into gold, they called it alchemy. The much more far-fetched dream of turning bound sheafs of plain paper into fortunes, they call publishing.”
Fergins may be only a lowly book-cart seller now, but in a not too long distant past, he was the assistant to one of the greatest bookaneers--pirates who profit on the "high seas of literature"-- in all of Europe. With the copyright laws of Europe and the United States woefully inconsistent, there are plenty of opportunities for an unscrupulous man to make a legal pile of money. The famous bookaneers don’t always stop with the legal capers: they also find, steal, and forge manuscripts, then auction them off to the highest bidders. But now the era of copyright free-for-all is coming to an end. The great bookaneer Pen Davenport embarks upon his last mission: to travel to the island of Samoa and steal a manuscript from the reclusive and sickly author, Robert Louis Stevenson. Accompanied by his faithful friend, Davenport must engage in a battle of wits with his greatest bookaneer rival--and with the author himself.
Given that my blog username is “bookaneer,” there was no way I could resist a book with “bookaneer” in the title. In The Last Bookaneer, the bookaneers aren’t just book-borrowers or library users a la Edward Bernays; they’re true criminals, even if inconsistent copyright laws mean their actions aren’t necessarily illegal. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder about the lines we draw between borrowing books and stealing them. I find these bookaneers’ willful defrauding of the authors to be despicable, but given that the bookaneers’ activities were (mostly) legal, were their activities really so morally distinct from an inveterate library user? After all, both cost the author their profits, and both are legal. I think the difference is that Pearl’s bookaneers profit from their crimes and make a business out of defrauding authors. But does that mean that the only difference is in scale? It’s all a bit uncomfortably tenuous, and the book repeatedly explores that theme. As Pen Davenport, bookaneer extraordinaire, puts it:
“People in the book world always hated the bookaneers because our operations forced them to be honest with themselves about what the whole thing really is--that literature and money were two edges of a single sword.”
Pearl’s ability to create a Victorian voice borders on genius. The story reads like a Wilkie Collins novel. In fact, Pearl is so expert at creating a Victorian perspective that I found the book’s tone quite uncomfortable. Much of the story takes place in Samoa and explores the tensions between various colonizers, the seething unrest of the native and slave populations, and Stevenson’s own interactions with the native Samoans. While Stevenson was certainly very broad-minded for his time period, the “great white chief” flavor of his household setup is certain to leave a bad taste in the mouths of the contemporary reader, even though it would be completely anachronistic to write the story differently. Even though the narrator cannot shake his own racism, the book does present several interesting Samoan characters, and a secondary narrator even hints at Fergins’ biases.
Fergins is a sympathetic narrator, and his interactions with the famous bookaneer Pen Davenport have an amusing Holmes-Watson rhythm, although I think Davenport himself is far more similar to Hornig’s Raffles. I’m not much of a fan of Raffles, and I don’t really understand Davenport’s belief that stealing an author’s manuscript can be considered some laudable venture. All the same, I enjoyed the way in which Davenport’s arrogance and lack of empathy become a running gag throughout the book. The rest of Fergins’ narrative is also full of plenty of gentle humor; for example:
“It did not work, though.”
“That is the problem with ingenuity.”
Each of the characters, including Davenport himself, tries to live up to the image that others have of them, and their inability to turn fiction into reality is their ultimate tragedy.
Most of the story is an adventurous Wilkie Collins-style romp, but a twist so bizarre that it feels like something out of a scifi short story highlights the core theme of the novel: an exploration of the true nature of books. Are they captured ideas or text-bound physical objects? Are they ideas that can be owned or are they meant to be shared? This duality of the concrete and the abstract is utterly mindbending, and even more confusing in the era of e-books. At what point does the author become distinct from his creation, ideologically or financially? As one character concludes:
“The moral is this: authors do not create literature; they are consumed by it.”
**Note: this review is of an uncorrected advanced reader copy. While the included quotes may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the nature of the novel as a whole.**
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Penguin Group, in exchange for my honest review.~~