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!