Thursday, 14 August 2008

Fridays Forgotten Books - Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard by Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian, (12 December 1914 – 2 January 2000; born as Richard Patrick Russ) was an English novelist and translator, best known for his Aubrey–Maturin series of novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and centered on the friendship of English Naval Captain Jack Aubrey and the Irish–Catalan physician Stephen Maturin.

However, my post today is Patrick O’Brian’s first book, and first novel written at the age of 12 and with the help of his father published three years later in 1930 was Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard. Then, after being long out of print, Caesar was republished in 2000; which is when I purchased my copy while in England and lucky to get one of the first editions.

Suffering from chronic ill health, Patrick O'Brian set about creating a fictional character: the offspring of a male giant panda and a female snow leopard. 'I did it mostly in my bedroom, and a little when I should have been doing homework,' he confessed in a note on his first book's dust jacket. During the time of his illness, Patrick was given a 19th century journal on the Natural Wonders of the World complete with illustrations and picture plates; and a doctor suggesting he go near some salt walter as it would help his poor health. Patrick learned how to sail.

It's a child's story, but provides glimpses into a style of writing, of wry wit that carries on into O’Brian’s other books. One would enjoy this book for the sheer pleasure of reading a well-told tale with an encyclopedic knowledge of natural history with the narrative charm of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. For the fact O’Brian wrote this at a very young age, the behaviour of each of the animals within including the humans is astonishingly accurate.

The first sentence of the first page grabs the reader and it never lets go. Try this:

“First you must understand that I am a panda-leopard. My father was a giant panda and my mother a snow-leopard.”

And four sentences further down the page:

“The first thing to make any great impression on my mind was the killing of my sister.”

The dry wit and unsentimental precision O'Brian's readers savour today is already in evidence. Caesar furiously mauls two shepherds, then suddenly laments, with utter sangfroid, 'I dimly felt sorry that I had needlessly killed these two useless things, for though I was hungry I could not bring myself to eat these smelly men.'

Mid way into the 94 pages there is a brief passage about Caesar with his new human master and meeting his children:

“A few days later my master took me into the garden again, where I saw his two young children, which were quite like him, only very small. They smelt the same. I was very proud that he should trust me so much and determined not to hurt them, for evidently he liked them, though they would have made a tender and juicy meal.”

Knowing he is a predator is forever on Caesar’s mind. There are constant reminders of this in his complaints about the food he receives from his human master: “The meat was hardly eatable, it smelt strongly of man and had hardly any blood in it.”

Caesar tells his own story, from birth to death. The story is filled with graphic accounts of Caesar's killing other animals and eating them, the bloodier the better—in an all very matter-of-fact manner. Through the eyes, emotions and voice of this fabulous creature, we learn of his life as a cub, his first hunting exploits, his first encounters with man, his capture after numerous forays upon a village’s herds, placed into a cage and tamed. Caesar is infused with many human characteristics as he is captured and accepts his master's control. He comes to the point where his love for his master overcomes his reason. Caesar questions this, but comes back to the fact he does love his master and wouldn't think of disobeying or hurting him. He worries about his master when they are separated during a storm; he takes a "wife", becomes a father and dies defending her and their cubs against a wolf pack.

The book fully documents the wildness of a predator in its habitat: its vicious brutality, and its laws. How in nature, death plays its part as an everyday thing.

In addition to twenty volumes in the highly respected Aubrey-Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian's many books include Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore. O'Brian also wrote acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks and translated many works from the French, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biographies of Charles de Gaulle. He passed away in January 2000 at the age of 85.


David Cranmer said...

I'm a fan of Patrick O'Brian and the Aubrey-Maturin series. I haven't read anything by him since Blue at the Mizzen... I'll have to check this one out.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I know more men who revere these books. I should try one. Thanks for such a lovely presentation of the work.

Barbara Martin said...

David, the book is quite entertaining. This second reading since I purchased it in 2000 held my attention the first time I read it The story holds the test of time. The wry wit is delightful.

BernardL said...

You made me want to read it, Barbara.

gary rith said...

What a large body of work! And a long and active life!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks again, Barbara. Can't imagine a 12 year old so precocious at writing to hold your sophisticated attention. Have to try it.

Barbara Martin said...

Patti, O'Brian was an avid reader, and being ill at an age when he should have been outside doing rough'n'tumble boy things, he wrote to amuse himself. As to keeping my attention with his writing style, O'Brian writes somewhat the way Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling wrote, with a definite English style of the time. It has a formality to it not seen much these days, almost "old-fashioned".

O'Brian's father was a physician, a bacteriologist, who would have seen that there were books available to read and study.

Not unlike my great-aunt May, who sent a multitude of books from England from 1942 until 1970, all with that particular English style, to educate my brothers and I. My mother and her family had received books, in turn, from my grandmother's Aunt Jenny who considered the colonies of Canada totally unsuitable in providing proper literature for children. This formed my basis of well written literature with a particular English slant to it. However, to be honest I would say that I am more of an eclectic reader.

Barbara Martin said...

Bernard, I'm glad as that is what a book review is meant to do.

I will soon be delving into O'Brian's "Master and Commander" series for research as well as entertainment in the fall. And, I suspect, will produce more book reviews on each of them.

Gary, yes, O'Brian was very productive because he found something to do that delighted him. He could both read and write at the same time.

From Patrick O'Brian's Foreward of Caeser, dated 1999 in the reprtint:

"It may seem absurd and say that writers, once they have experienced this intense delight, live fully only when they are writing fast, at the top of their being: the rest of the time only the lacklustre shell of the man is present, often ill-tempered (deprived of his drug), rarely good company."

Joshua said...

thanks barb, these MTM are really fun and a nice way to get to know your fellow bloggers.