1842 A maritime saga
Bosun: The Mariner’s Journals
By Gary H. Karlsen
Victoria, BC: First Choice Books, 2023
$24.95 / 9781775266921
Reviewed by Eric W. Sager
Bosun, whose name is Ulf Kleivik, is well into his nineties, living in a small wooden house north of the Arctic circle. He finds a “penman,” a writer, to turn Kleivik’s journals into his life’s story.
So begins Gary Karlsen’s fictional account of a Norwegian seafarer.
But what kind of fiction is this? It reads like a first-person memoir, in which the central character tells many tales and locates himself in the world of ships and sailors across much of the twentieth century. Perhaps it is realist fiction, a genre in which the characters are imaginary but the settings are real, where the invented characters appear as though they existed in reality, especially since they interact with known historical persons. This comes close to describing Karlsen’s book, but it is not exact, because Bosun may not be entirely imaginary: he appeared in Karlsen’s previous book No Ordinary Seaman (2018), a very successful non-fiction memoir. In that book Bosun was a real person, and he bears some resemblance to this new Kleivik—both are from Tromso, both have half of their left thumbs cut off, and both were in the M/S Hakvatt in the 1960s. And our author, South Surrey’s Gary Karlsen, a very real former sailor, makes a cameo appearance in this new work of fiction.
Bosun is certainly a work of fiction, but it is a blend of subgenres. The author has shifted from memoir to fiction, while keeping much of the style and approach of memoir. The shift is no easy task, and Karlsen is to be congratulated for his accomplishment. His ability to weave a tale is intact, and if he does not always succeed in rendering spoken dialogue as might an experienced novelist, surely few readers will be bothered. The context here is everything, and it embraces much of the wide range of Norwegian merchant seafaring. Bosun works at various times in tramp steamers, passenger-cargo ships, an oil rig, a passenger liner, tankers, and even a small vessel going up the Amazon. He ends his seafaring career in his own restored 53-foot wooden-hulled cutter.
Much of Bosun’s memoir has to do with the Second World War, and the war casts a long shadow, even to a final tragedy in 2003. Every author has to make choices, and Karlsen chooses to put his Bosun in a whaling ship at the beginning of the war, and then in Halifax in 1940. This choice allows the author to tell readers about the large presence of Norwegian ships and seafarers in Halifax during the war. That’s an important story, but Bosun might have been located in Oslo Harbour on May 8 and 9, 1940, when the Germans attacked and a battle ensued in Oslo fjord (mentioned briefly later in the book). Norwegian merchant ships received orders, initiated by the Germans and the collaborationist Norwegian government, to return home or to put into German-controlled ports. The refusal of Norwegian captains to obey was a key moment in the war, because Norway possessed a large, modern merchant marine which went on to play a critical role in the North Atlantic. It would have been interesting to peer more deeply into the attitudes of Norwegian merchant sailors at this key moment in the war, and the reasons behind their choices. The leadership of King Haakon was decisive, but so also were the decisions of the Norwegians who chose to follow him.
Bosun’s memories take us to many places: we find him watching the dismemberment of a whale in Antarctic waters, smoking opium in Casablanca, swimming nude at Pen Hat in Brittany, visiting Jewish refugees in Nova Scotia, and getting a tattoo on his chest in Montevideo.
Much of the action is at sea, of course: the fate of men on rafts after their ship is torpedoed, the sometimes weird challenges posed by passengers aboard the passenger-cargo ships, the rage-inducing heat when stranded in the Red Sea, and the multitude of ordinary tasks on a ship at sea.
Bosun’s saga is also about the peculiar comradeship among men at sea (women seafarers, we learn, increased in number in Norwegian ships, but the women in Bosun’s story are mainly on land, excepting his wife, who becomes a sailor in their own small cutter late in her life). There is much more to the camaraderie than drinking rum: we are introduced to the “throwing line toss,” the “un-Olympics,” and the Great Bitter Lake Opera (hint: it involves flatulence).
Bosun is also a family saga, and the narrator’s kin take us to many other places, including even the British Special Operations Executive in the Second World War, and not least important, to the landward home of his wife, daughter, and trickster granddaughter.
In Bosun’s diverse human array we find many absurdities, many human failings, and many hypocrisies, for which Bosun carries and deploys a “stupid people mirror.” The generous humanity remains intact, for all the failings and stupidities that our big-hearted Bosun observes. Mysteries are resolved and questions answered, as the old mariner returns for the last time to Norway from his seaward home.
Eric W. Sager was a member of the History Department at the University of Victoria from 1983 to 2016. He has done research on the history of the English peace movement, the sailing ships and seafarers of Atlantic Canada, unemployment in Canada, families in Canada, and economic inequality. His books include Seafaring Labour (1989), Maritime Capital (1990), and Ships and Memories (1993). His most recent books are Inequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020) and The Professor and the Plumber: Conversations About Equality and Inequality (Friesen Press, 2021). Editor’s note: Eric Sager reviewed books by Jonathan Manthorpe and Gary H. Karlson for The British Columbia Review. Sager’s Inequality in Canada was reviewed by Ron Verzuh, while Jak King reviewed Sager’s book The Professor and the Plumber.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster