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Far Tortuga

3.93  ·  Rating Details ·  817 Ratings  ·  89 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
Jul 08, 2009 James Murphy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jeff Jackson
Feb 10, 2013 Jeff Jackson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Peter Matthiessen isn't known as an avant garde writer, but FAR TORTUGA is a deeply experimental novel that deserves to be discussed with the best of Coover, Barthleme, Hawkes, etc. You first notice how the beautifully designed pages are unusually arranged and filled with yawning white spaces. The narration is radically separate from the dialogue, offering no commentary and supplying only sparse descriptive passages. Its an effective approach that immerses you in the vivid conversations of the G ...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.
Nov 17, 2007 John rated it really liked it
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
Nine men leave Grand Cayman in the Caribbean Sea, aboard a run down schooner, on a turtling voyage, hoping to make some money. We learn about the nine men from the conversations they have - they are at sea, there is little else to do while they travel to the fishing grounds. There are simple relationships, based on many things - friendship being more rare than mutual dislike, distrust and animosity. They are simple men, from poor backgrounds, who have little and offer less. They seek green turtl ...more
Mar 25, 2008 Jessica rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 08, 2014 Kelly Daniels rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 31, 2016 Ken rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished-in-2016
This book scores high for technical merit and artistic ambition. It just wasn't my kind of book. Written in the vernacular of sailors (yes, and a few pirates) of the Caribbean, it took some adjustments at first. Very much in the strain of Twain's Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What disappointed me was the huge amount of dialogue. Some of Matthiessen's descriptive flourishes waxed poetic, and I would've enjoyed indulging in more of THAT, but no. This is a talky book, character-driven.
Dec 08, 2008 Patrick rated it really liked it
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 it was amazing
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
Jul 10, 2008 Ryan rated it really liked it
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
Dec 18, 2010 Joseph Wallace rated it it was amazing
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.
Apr 06, 2010 Roger rated it it was amazing
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.
Apr 07, 2014 ben rated it did not like it
Imagery jumbled out of order. Flipping the page and furrowed brow. Sentences dance to their own rhythm, guiding themselves nowhere.

random words in arranged order conveying nothing

closing book

Dec 04, 2009 Jeff rated it did not like it
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 it was amazing
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.
Aug 07, 2008 Martine rated it it was amazing
Rather than read a review by me, read Peter Matthiessen's thoughts on it:
Feb 25, 2009 Charles rated it really liked it
Shelves: classics
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.
Sep 17, 2015 Robert rated it really liked it
A classic. Well worth reading for the unique, dialogue-centric structure. The kind of book I'd assign my students just to show them "what's possible."
A.A. Attanasio
Aug 07, 2011 A.A. Attanasio rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stylistic innovation.
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.
Laura J. W.
I always admire the skill of an author who takes a book out of the normal realm of storytelling and tells the story—just tells it like it is—even the bare bones are still complex with the cryptic marrow slyly beguiling; poetry. The mostly circular or wave-like ink markings that indicate the passage of time or weather add a dimension that is more thoughtful than the standard ornaments on offer in book design to indicate breaks in the narrative. I understand in my writer’s soul why Matthiessen sai ...more
Tom Morgan
Aug 09, 2016 Tom Morgan rated it liked it
I was both impressed and disappointed by "Far Tortuga." The book is rightfully credited for its spareness, its sense of foreboding, and isolation. The sea rolls under the reader and the yipping of terns and the ceaseless building and dying of wind is never far from mind as the pages drift along the horizon. Though the experimental form of the novel takes some time to get used to (I had to read the first 40 pages twice before I felt like I had jumped aboard) Matthiessen's vivid, haibun-esque desc ...more
Jan 13, 2015 Jonathan rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
This novel feels like reportage, which it is in a sense; it was drawn from PM's time in the Caribbean researching an article on green turtle fishing for the New Yorker. The narration, particularly describing the natural beauty and peril of the cays and the sea, sounds like something written by a white American nature writer. The dialogue, in dialect, sounds like anything but. The dialogue is not delivered in a patronizing way - "behold these savage men" - but rather in a careful, painstaking, at ...more
Mar 13, 2010 Matt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Jan 24, 2008 Rick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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
Aug 26, 2015 Al rated it really liked it
Four and a half stars, five if you have a weakness for the Caribbean and its cultures. This book is well-conceived and brilliantly executed, again demonstrating that Mr. Mathiessen's range of accomplishment and meticulous craftsmanship are unexcelled. In this case, the story line follows a turtle-fishing voyage on a dilapidated motor/sailing vessel from the Cayman Islands south to the Cays off Nicaragua. The crew of nine is as broken-down as the boat, and their troubles mount as they head south ...more
Apr 16, 2012 Shannon rated it did not like it
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
Jul 18, 2014 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
Feb 25, 2015 Jesse rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2015
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
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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.
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“The sun, coming hard around the world: the island rises from the sea, sinks, rises, holds.” 2 likes
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