Words Without Borders: Hunger

I just learned about an organization called Words Without Borders. Exploring their webpage, my attention was caught by writing from Madagascar. Not much — comparatively speaking to French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and many other languages — has been translated from Malagasy into English. So I was excited for this reason to read translated works, and also for the reason that I have been to Madagascar and seen the beauty of the people, the cooking, the music, the biological diversity, the forests, and the countryside.

Here is a link to an article about hunger in Madagascar during the time that the French were at war, and also suffering.

Last night, I watched In the Heart of the Sea. Warning: Spoiler alert. The most moving scene for me, surprisingly, took place in the outer frame of the story, the one in which a young Melville has traveled to Nantucket to interview Nickerson, who was only 14 (fact check) when he joined the crew of the whaleship Essex. Nickerson, in the movie, had been holding on to his story for years, not telling anyone, even his own wife about what happened. When he asks Melville, “Do you judge me?” And then expresses dismay over how he can still never tell his wife, and she steps into the room having listened the whole time, and tells him that she loves him, that she has seen his strength, then when he was a boy, and even now, and that if he had told her before they were married, she still would have married him. That, for me, was more moving than the portrayal of the starving sailors. Why?

I do not know. Perhaps it was the portrayal, or perhaps it is because I have an innate callousness protecting me from the grim realities of starvation, and how it changes people.

And yet, I do take issue with some of the portrayal. So much of the real story, the true horror and irony, was simply left out:

1.) The fact (fact check) that Captain Pollard ate his own nephew (and the purported, though likely fictitious line, “Know him, I ‘et him!”) and that expecting her brother to take care of her son, Pollard’s sister never spoke to him again.

And the actual circumstance surrounding the drawing of lots. It’s possible that what the movie portrayed happened, I suppose, but unlikely. Captain Pollard seemed to be telling the truth in his account, and those people he shared his story with were convinced and impressed by his integrity, so much so that they gave him another whaling ship to captain afterwards. And what motivation would he have to lie about something so grim? Was there an even stronger taboo against suicide? And yet, if his nephew had done something so noble as to sacrifice his own life for the captain, as depicted in the movie, wouldn’t Pollard have wanted to give him credit for it? No, I think it’s much more likely that Pollard’s account as described in the book is more accurate than the movie.

2.) The great irony that the decision was made to travel much much farther, so as to avoid an island that might have cannibals. But then of course, resorting to cannibalism to survive.

3.) The fact (fact check) that not one single African American man survived, and in fact were the first to die and be eaten (fact check). And why was this?

4.) The condensing into one scene (whether to go back to Nantucket to repair their whaleboats or keep on going ahead) of the multiple times that Pollard changed his mind, convinced by Chase, which ultimately cost the crew dearly. For instance, Pollard wanted to sail to the closer islands (fact check). It seems that the producers made the decision to make Chase into more of a super protagonist. The whole scene with Pollard mocking Chase’s farmer background seemed out of character from the Pollard in Nathaniel Philbrick’s account.

That said, there were scenes of great beauty and creativity, such as the scene when the captain’s log became flooded with water, and the ink clouded off the page into the sea. The achievement of visualizing Nantucket back in the day. The drinking from the tiny spring on the island where three or four men decided to stay. The eating of birds’ eggs. And especially, the subtle references and spaces in the dialogue between Nickerson and Melville, hinting at Melville’s not only admiration, but love, for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Was Melville bi? Does it matter? Would it be interesting to know what his innermost life was like? Sure, but everyone deserves privacy. But yes, the forgiveness Nickerson was finally able to find for himself with help from his wife and Melville through telling his story, in my opinion, that was the triumph of the movie.

To return to hunger, both the essay from Words Without Borders and also the story of In the Heart of the Sea deal with taboo being broken due to extreme hunger. Although it’s almost become a joke, “Finish the food on your plate because there are children starving in Africa!” It’s still a reality that hunger is out there, hunger so extreme that otherwise good people steal and kill. What can we do to help our neighbors? At the very least, what can we do to respect the food we have and acknowledge that our lives and happiness depends upon it?