Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Art of the Novella Challenge: Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville

Benito Cereno is a novella by Herman Melville; originally published in 1855, it tells the story of an American merchant vessel that comes upon a mysterious Spanish ship off the coast of South America. The captain, Benito Cereno, is taciturn and sullen. Followed everywhere by his African servant Babo, he seems indifferent to his difficult situation: most of the crew are dead and those remaining are all behaving oddly. The American captain, Delano, offers help and is rebuffed; he tries to find out what's going on but gets nowhere, until Cereno makes a move that illuminates the situation and forces a resolution.

This book was one of only a few Art of the Novella books available at the bookstore, and to be honest I picked it up because it was short. But it is really incredible; dense and detailed with tragedy of many kinds at its core, it's hard to place but impossible to put down. Melville builds the tension slowly until the story explodes in violence. Although the story is based on true events, Melville seems to scrupulously avoid taking sides, as the debates around the political and philosophical message of the story show. I think I agree with the critic who said that at the end of the day, what it's really about is brutality. I'd recommend it to readers wanting to try out a little Melville without committing to Moby-Dick (I've never been able to finish that book myself); it's great American literature all by itself.

Also read for the Art of the Novella Challenge:
The North of God, by Steve Stern

I guess this means I'm going beyond the 1-book level and shooting for 3!

6 comments:

fatbooks.org said...

Moby Dick is one of my least favorite books, but I've wanted to try some other Melville for a while. Last year when I was studying for the lit gre (see: memorizing novels' plots, character names) I was struck by the synopsis of Benito Cereno. I just read another review of a Melville novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, but it sounds like this one may be the place for me to give him another try. Mostly because I'm the mood for, well, stories that explode violently.

-- Ellen

bermudaonion said...

It does sound like a good way to experience Melville. The fact that it's based on true events piques my interest.

JoAnn said...

Confession time: I've never read Melville...
This may just be the place to start.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wait, wait! You're saying Melville wrote something that is dense and detailed? NO! Hard to believe! LOLOL

Zibilee said...

I know I am totally showing my ignorance here, but I had no idea that Melville wrote a novella. I actually had no idea that he wrote anything other than Moby Dick, which I have ever read. I need to try to check this one out because your review intrigues. Thanks, Marie!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

Thanks Marie. Moby Dick is at least on my list of books to be read which I don't have on my shelves. lol. Perhaps I should try this before deciding on MD.