Thursday, March 12, 2020

My Favourite Character (from the Australian Merchant Navy)


His Most Italian City is dedicated to Captain Peter Ferrar, Master Mariner, Australian Merchant Navy. From the time of its first draft, when I realized that the novel had the potential to attract a mainstream publisher, I had intended to dedicate it to Peter, so let me tell you why I based my favourite character on him. (That’s right, he was the captain of the submarine, Stefan Pirjevec.)


Peter was my next door neighbour, a retired sea captain, bosom pal of my golden retriever, and the personification of quiet authority. There was a story about him that, some years before we moved in, the council had sandbagged the banks of the creek that ran through our front yards, in the process disturbing the roots of two large eucalypts on our respective properties that afterwards became dangerous and had to be cut down. Peter, so the story went, quietly advised the council that it was their fault and they should pay, while the man who lived in our house failed to convince them and was forced to pay himself. This summed Peter up. People acted as he reasonably requested them to, and without fuss.


He was in love with the sea and this was what I tried to convey in the character of Stefan. I come from a family of English and German mariners on my father’s side and I feel that the sea is my natural medium, but until I met Peter I had never seen it expressed in one’s whole character. His wife told me she was going to wean off the sea like a baby off the bottle but I don’t believe that was possible in his case. Though he was quiet, he became loquacious whenever I asked him about the sea, which I did at every available opportunity. I once asked him to describe the weirdest thing he’d ever seen when he was at sea. He replied by explaining the phosphorescent wheels off the coast of Thailand, spinning wheels of light created by algae. This particular time, he said, he’d seen two intersecting wheels. ‘It made you wonder what you’d been drinking!’ On another occasion I showed him a photo from a book about sea disasters in which the entire bow of a merchant ship had been destroyed, allegedly by a wave. I’m sure the image was geared to shock civilians. Peter just looked at it and commented, ‘Poor seamanship.’


‘Did anything like that ever happen to you?’ I enquired breathlessly.


So he told me that once (once!) he’d run aground off South Africa, a coast notorious for its ferocious seas.


Whilst the other characters I simply made up, I had to be very controlled when I wrote about the captain. (It is unlike me to be controlled on paper.) I had to have Peter always before me and not lose my focus and get carried away. After ten months, I sent off the first draft to the manuscript assessor, Sarah Minns, and this is how she replied:  ‘Stefan – I like this character and I think he’s quite clearly drawn.’


First the self-control, then the payoff! I was very pleased by her comment. It gave me the confidence to develop him further.


But - in the book, Stefan’s wife Nataša has been murdered by the fascists. Because Brazzi the protagonist was in love with her, and because he had a vicious streak to his ego, he falsely claimed that he and Nataša had been having an affair. This implication of Nataša’s complicity restricted Stefan’s expression of his grief, and this in turn led to anger that is resolved by the end of the novel when Stefan learns the truth.  Now, the single instance of (righteous) anger I had ever seen in Peter was when he gave up smoking. He was not an angry man. So I experienced a certain measure of guilt explaining the character to his daughter when I asked for permission to dedicate the novel to him. I hasten to add that I loved the ending. I felt that I had brought Stefan to a point of peace.


I remember reading The Sound of One Hand Clapping by the Australian author Richard Flanagan, also about Slovenians, and how beautifully the novel resolved. This was what I was hoping to achieve for this character.



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