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Far Tortuga

3.91 of 5 stars 3.91  ·  rating details  ·  660 ratings  ·  71 reviews
An adventure story and a deeply considered meditation upon the sea itself.
Hardcover, 449 pages
Published May 1st 2000 by Europäische Verlagsanstalt (eva) (first published 1975)
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James Murphy
Far Tortuga is one of my favorite novels. I've read it many times and will continue to read it. It's a simple story in which little happens except that men, without really understanding it as such, confront nature and existence and the unwavering progress of time. It's April of a year in the mid-1960s. It's the time of turtle fishing in the banks and reefs of the Caribbean along the coast of Central America. The run-down schooner Lillias Eden leaves Grand Cayman with a mongrel crew of 9 represen ...more
Unlike anything else I've read; exudes the unmistakable aura of a forgotten classic; completely wonderful; transcendent. Anything that begins in the following manner must be something special and important...


At windward passage, four hundred miles due east, the sun is rising. Wind east-northeast, thirty-eight knots, with gusts to forty-five: a gale.

Black waves, wind-feathered. White birds, dark birds.

The trade winds freshen at first light, and the sea rises in long ridges, rolling west.
Read this years ago, wound up assigning it to my Literature & Ecology of the Sea class. Definitely not for the faint of heart due to Mathiessen's use of a variety of graphic & textual "experiments" including writing all the dialog in a sort of "you are right there listening to it" patois (one student commented quite correctly that the book is more like a play than a novel) Still & all, it has some of the best descriptions of actually being on a schooner at sea that I can think of
Wow! I am so pleased to see so many 5 star reviews on GR of this novel...I was so awed by it (to use that overused word) when I read it in the 80' very beautiful, haunting, lyrical...and incredibly innovative. But why did no one ever talk about it? Teach it in an "experimental fiction" course? I don't believe I've ever met anyone else (in person) who read it, let alone loved it...and now I see all these reviews on Goodreads...hey! I'm not a nutcase after all! Or if I am, I'm in good compan ...more
Kelly Daniels
I've read this book twice over the years, and I thought I'd recommend it on the occasion of the death of its author. It happens to be my favorite Matthiessen novel, and it's his personal favorite too, as he mentioned on a Fresh Air interview a few years ago. It's a simple story of a crew of Caribbean turtle fishermen--characters in the best sense of that word--out on a seasonal hunt in an odd ship caught awkwardly in a transition from sail power to diesel. It's more or less the same plot as Moby ...more
I gave this one four stars instead of five because, like some other readers here, I struggled a little bit with matching up the dialogue with the characters. Often times you arent sure who is speaking and in some cases, who is thinking. I found that the best way to get around this is to just give up on trying to figure it out and just try and go with it. Other than that I have to say that I really enjoyed the layout and the unique form that Matthiessen employs. I dont think a lesser writer could ...more
Feb 22, 2009 Marie rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone with a sense of adventure, curiousity about men and the sea.
Recommended to Marie by: Author's reputation, subject matter.
OK, this, the 3rd Peter M. book I tried really surprised me. What a wonderfully engaging mariner's tale. I love this one and feel Peter M. did a wonderful job telling this story. Having spent some time on a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico myself, many years ago, I quite enjoyed this one. However, it took several pages for me to get used to reading the dialect as it is written but that really added to the feeling of being there with the nine men onboard the boat and the perils they found thems ...more
A novel that relies heavily on visual representation and page layout. Dialogue appears untagged - and appears almost like a screenplay. Pauses within speech are shown in space, the ship's manifest is reproduced on page, and there is a diagram of the ship (rather than a verbal description). Days, and time of day, are shown by graphic depiction of the sun and moon. What words compose a man? Matthessien arranges his description of Vemon in the shape of a man late in the novel.

Overall it is a fun bo
Joseph Wallace
Talk about your love-it-or-hate-it books! Many find this experimental novel completely impenetrable, but I thought it was heartbreaking and riveting. The book's design, featuring inkblot-like illustrations, poetic arrangements of words on the page, and impressionistic dialog among the Caribbean turtle fishermen who are the focus of the story, cast a spell on me I found it hard to shake. Highly recommended.
This is really one of the great American written novels of any time, full of amazing images of the ocean, what's on it and under it, and the lives of people who sail and shuffle between landfalls of the Caribbean. Full of poetry and brilliance. This is an important book about humans and destiny. I recently re-read parts of this great book and am still amazed by its power and architecture.
Rich Kelley
My men's reading group picked this for our May-June read, inspired by Matthiessen's recent passing. I had heard a lot about it and knew that it was Matthiessen's favorite book. I'm sure if I had spent more time out on the open water aboard a sailboat or motorboat, I probably would have enjoyed this more, but I'm afraid I never caught the book's magic. I was certainly in the minority in my group. Everyone else raved about the beauty of the language and how unusual to have so much space between th ...more
The clipped, present-tense style may have been groundbreaking in 1975, but today it reads like an overlong screenplay. Another misfire: the thick patois of the Caribbean characters, tediously rendered through obfuscatory misspelled dialogue.
yvette managan
Jun 25, 2007 yvette managan rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone!!!
Metthiessen uses words like no one else in the world. They are beautiful - utterly beautifdul. It takes a little while to get used to the rhythm of the language, but once you find it, the lyrical cadence is unforgettable.
Dec 30, 2013 Alex marked it as to-read
Chris, really, really likes this. And something about Moby-Dick and turtles? So, okay, yes to that.
John Gillis
Peter Matthiessen recently passed away, and since I had read and thoroughly gotten into his epic "Shadow Country" (the "Killing of Mr. Watson" trilogy") I picked up "Far Tortuga" from the library. It was written in 1975, with a strange and unique format, kind of like a poem, or "spare poetic-prose" as it says on the inside flap, on a strange and unique theme -- green-turtle fishing in in the Caribbean. Weird and very wonderful book that will suck you into its very human universe.

Thomas Pynchon
A fascinating book. At times I wasn't sure I liked it. At other times I found it amazingly compelling. I've decided at last that I liked it quite a bit. This one is fiction.
I'd definitely say I enjoyed reading this, and much of it was very beautiful. However of the experiment of its structure I can only say I didn't see the point of having quotes unattributed, particularly with as many characters as this book has. The fact that I was rarely totally sure who was talking impeded my sense of the characters, and the demand for extra attention from me didn't seem to result in much in the way of stylistic payoff: I don't know how the book would have been cheapened or wea ...more
Rather than read a review by me, read Peter Matthiessen's thoughts on it:
I didn’t plan on re-reading this favorite novel but when I recently went to Texas to visit my brothers I injured my ankle and was laid up for the better part of the morning and early afternoon and grabbed the book off my brother’s shelf and read half of the novel there and finished it back home. Far Tortuga tells the story of an ill-fated Caribbean turtle fishing crew, mostly Cayman Islanders. There is minimal narration and description, most of the story is told via the conversation of the crew ...more
Simply and elegantly written. At times the writing is like prose, at times it is in plain, often obscene patois; regardless of the style used by the author, "Far Tortuga" is always beautiful to read.

I loved the sense that there was no world outside of the Eden, the present-tense writing added to the effect that I felt as if I were squatting on an oil drum eating or standing along the rail watching a cigarette pack blow along the scuppers. Significant to call the ship "Eden" because the author of
David Guy
This is Matthiessen's most unconventional novel; he abandons the traditional narrative and tries just to present one present moment after another, one day after another, in the lives of a group of turtle fishermen. Dialogue and brief descriptions carry the story forward, and every day is a new reading experience. I hadn't anticipated the devastating ending. A powerful reading experience.
Nearly unreadable. The book is formatted like a poem, but reads more like a play. The only problem is that there are some profound and presumably important statements made where the reader is not able to determine the speaker. A group of 8 of us read this book, and all but one had the same problem. The one person who disagreed was still unable to identify the speaker when an example was given to him. Further, the plot development is nearly non-existent until the last 20 pages or so. The scene de ...more
Jim Kleban
Zen in novel form, Matthiessen weaves a vivid Caribbean sea tale through a series of sparse moments. The events of the story and the dialogue are interwoven with the unfiltered being of nature. I was moved by what the author was attempting here. I'm not sure it quite worked, but I enjoyed the attempt.
Alex V.
This one is slow-going because of the depth of the writing, style, and sea on which the story takes place. in that bend of time while actually reading it, it's like getting telegrams from God relayed by Caribbean turtle fishermen. So I guess it is worth the work.

Update: worth it. The last quarter is humanity's rotten vessel sinking into the black of the universe, written in blood on the sails. Maybe the best ending to a book ever.
A little too long for a book with no plot. And a few too many characters for a book where you have to guess who's speaking. But it paints a complete and convincing picture of the world they're living in, and I found the ending very satisfying.
Mar 07, 2015 Millie added it
I liked Matthiessen's non fiction work, THE SNOW LEOPARD, a great deal and this fictional work came highly recommended. Obviously, it took me some time to finish. It's set in the Caribbean on a boat of workers fishing for turtles. Matthiessen captures different dialects of the Caribbean and uses various stylistic devices that require some concentration (not a bad thing but more for daytime than nighttime reading). I found it engaging in the way that MOBY DICK and HEART OF DARKNESS are engaging. ...more
Lyrical, impressionistic, imaginative, visually arresting, fascinating subject matter, lively characters, utterly beautiful descriptions. Enough to interest you?
I enjoyed both The Snow Leopard and Killing Mr. Watson. This, however, I read only till about page 100. Part novel, part stage play, part travel diary; dialogue typically without attribution and in pidgeon or patois or local dialect, if you will -- there just wasn`t enough reason for me to care about the characters or their fate.
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Peter Matthiessen is the author of more than thirty books and the only writer to win the National Book Award for both non-fiction (The Snow Leopard, in two categories, in 1979 and 1980) and fiction (Shadow Country, in 2008). A co-founder of The Paris Review and a world-renowned naturalist, explorer and activist, he died in April 2014.
More about Peter Matthiessen...
The Snow Leopard Shadow Country In the Spirit of Crazy Horse At Play in the Fields of the Lord In Paradise

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“The sun, coming hard around the world: the island rises from the sea, sinks, rises, holds.” 1 likes
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