Everyone knows the story, but
let us briefly review it as an introduction to what follows. White Star
Line, the prestigious English ocean-liner company, had forecast the
inaugural voyage of its pride flagship, the Titanic,
for the 10th of April in the now-distant year of 1912. Edward J. Smith,
who at one time had boasted of not having experienced either shipwrecks or
accidents in almost 40 years of maritime activity, and who was the
best-known seaman of the line, would be the one to captain it.
After it left the docks, the huge vessel anchored at Cherbourg to take
on new passengers, and again at Queenstown (now Cobh), where Irishmen in
search of work embarked on the voyage to America. The powerful ship then
faced the open ocean, detination New York. Thus, that gathering of festive
and hopeful people began the simple trip from one shore to another, from
life to death. More than two thousand souls were on board and it wouldn’t
have ocurred to any of them to compare the ship to the enormous coffin it
The Titanic, elder sister of
the ambitious trio that included the Olympic
and the Britannic as well, had
come to symbolize an entire era of wealth and privilege that made
“progress” into something like a religion. The blow dealt to the
“unsinkable” ship meant, then, much more than the death of 1,502 people.
Like other historic calamities, it initiated, in a generation that had
learned very little from the past, a complete reassessment of values.
Captain Edward Smith took charge of that microcosm of civilization as a
farewell voyage, since, at 59, he was planning to retire. He supposed that
it would be his last command, and he wasn’t wrong.
It was Sunday the 14th of April, a little before midnight, when they saw
the iceberg whose fatal contact they could not avoid. Desperate radio
messages were to no avail, and then there was the stupidity of the crew of
the Californian, the ship that was
following the Titanic’s route
from London to Boston very closely, and which could have intervened:
everything seemed to be ranged against them.The insufficient lifeboats, as
if doled out by fate, permitted 705 of the passengers to escape death. They
were the ones who heard the last measures of the band playing “Autumn”,
though later generations, hungry for high drama, embroidered the story,
insisting that the swan song was “Nearer My God to Thee”. A few hours
later, April 15 now, waves covered the enormous ocean tomb.
The comparison of this disaster to classic Greek tragedy is inevitable:
on the one hand, men confident of themselves and their future, egotism and
cowardice (the man who disguised himself as a woman to get on a lifeboat),
but also bravery, mixed though it was with hubris and defiance of the gods
(“God Himself could not sink this ship”); on the other hand, those
forces, perhaps irrational, that we as humans cannot know and whose mission
it is to restore some sort of order. Like an enormous, divine chessboard, we
are pieces of a game that, like man, is always the same and always diferent.
It’s impossible not to invoke another struggle that’s similar and yet
fantastic: the story that Herman Melville told in Moby
A variety of people and personalities were assembled for that ill-fated
voyage. Among the notables were Mayor Archibald Butt (adviser to President
William Howard Taft), the artist Frank Millet, the philanthropist Isidor
Strauss and hiw wife Ida; also the industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim (who in
the final minutes ran to his room to put on his finest clothes in order not
to die like a beast and to greet death as a gentleman should); the
oustanding newspaperman William T. Stead (who awaited his fate in the
Smoking Room, reading), and the writer Jacques Frutelle, who was travelling
with his wife.
Despite his name, Frutelle was a North American, born in Georgia, into a
family of Huguenot ancestry. He had worked as a reporter in Richmond,
Virginia, then briefly in theater, and finally settled in Boston, where he
joined the staff of the Boston
American, the local Hearst paper.
His brief life lasted long enough for him to produce a respectable body
of work, in which he leaned both toward popular tastes and toward a
literature greater depth, philosophic even, as we shall see when we get to
the real point behind these pages. His bibliography includes The Simple Case of Susan (1908), a novel about the confusion of
identities; The Diamond Master (1909),
a novel combining mystery and science fiction; Elusive Isabel (1909), a crime novel; The High Hand (1911), a political novel; and two posthumous books, My
Lady’s Garter (1912) and Blind
Man’s Buff (1916), both with some elements of crime. But Jacques
Frutelle will be remembered principally for his contribution to the
detective story genre. In this field he wrote numerous short narratives,
introducing detectives Fred Boyd, Dr. Spence, Garron, and Louis Harding;
almost all of these stories were scattered in newspapers and journals, and
it wouldn’t be surprising if some have been lost. In spite of this body of
work, we need to say that Frutelle’s name is inevitably associated
with The Thinking Machine (otherwise known as Dr. Augustus S.F.X. Van
Dusen, the unforgettable and astute detective). In the tale entitled “The
Problem of Cell 13” (probably the most famous), we are informed that Van
Dusen became known as The Thinking Machine when someone baptized him with
the name after he completed an incredible exhibition of chess and showed
that, through logic, a newcomer to the game could defeat a master.
At the time of his death, Jacques Frutelle was regarded as a skillful
and ingenious writer not only in Europe but also in the United Sates,
capable of writing texts that could be read on various levels. The stories
about The Thinking Machine are based on the notion of insoluble or
impossible problems, which Professor Van Dusen would then unravel. In his
last hours Frutelle had wanted, as we shall see, to apply the same approach
to existencial and philosophical questions, but in a genre seemingly remote
from crime fiction. This –along with the short-lived and ill-fated
character of the undertaking– should suggest two important points: as with
many writers who seriously attempt the mystery and detective genres,
Frutelle’s work contains a special preoccupation with the dialectics of
good and evil, life and death, and, second, an unswerving search for a
timeless and inescapable truth.
Stories about The Thinking Machine are collected in The
Thinking Machine (1906) and in The
Thinking Machine on the Case (1907). Others are scattered in newspapers
and literary reviews. Some will probably be lost forever, but that’s not
what matters now. It should be added that Professor Van Dusen is also the
protagonist of a novel published in 1906, The
Chase of the Golden Plate, a weak narrative that might interest some
because, according to Mrs. May Frutelle, it was the first story that her
husband wrote about Van Dusen. The widow never said a word about any
unpublished stories that presumably would have been swallowed by the ocean
when the ship sank. At one point, it is true, she did offer up an odd
document, and that is what constitutes the center of this report.
The widow of Frutelle (née Peel) was also a writer who shared many of
her husband’s concerns. One time she wrote a whimsical fantasy; he then
wrote a story of his own, deconstructing hers. But this is anecdotal. What
she liked to remember were the brief but recurring conversations in which
they exchanged opinions about books and authors, and in which he confided in
her about his literary projects. They say that in those recollections,
tinged with nostalgia, the woman never stopped repeating that she had always
urged him to undertake work that would tap his gifts more fully. It may well
be in response to this that, the night before the disaster, the writer gave
her seven pages of an incomplete manuscript, of which Mrs Frutelle, in the
frantic exodus, was only able to rescue three: the missing four were the
opening pages. She claimed that the other pages were a drawn-out
presentation of the protagonist/narrator: a young woman who was expecting a
child. She didn’t remember anything more, though she certainly agreed that
it would have been interesting to know the rest of the story, the part that
Jacques Frutelle took with him to the bottom of the sea.
Strangely enough, this kind of document always ends up in the hands of
some professor at some North American University. The pages with the White
Star Line letterhead were no exception. This chronicler can only say
that he received copies via fax from a professor at Michigan State
University. Who is this professor? How did the papers come into his hands?
When and by whom were they delivered? How much did he pay for them? Not only
did the person writing this promise to destroy the copies but his informant
also insisted on his perpetuating the mystery.
What matters, at any rate, is the manuscript.
Let’s just say that it is almost too short for us to discern the
Frutelle we know. In truth, if it weren’t for the handwriting, the
letterhead, and the source, we would doubt its authenticity. Only a scholar
of Frutelle’s work could catch in that fragment the faint fragance of the
Edwardian world, the pared-down style that it inherited from pulp novels,
and the concentration on action rather than character. But what’s certain,
beyond the provisional nature of the writing, is that it’s impossible not
to glimpse, or at least intuit, Frutelle’s predilection for the search of
ideas, which gives rise to a story that explores modes of consciousness. It
seems, then, that a modern Prometheus is hidden behind the words that
follow, one who shares the hero’s aspirations and his fate.
It’s almost unnecessary topoint out that the translation is literal.
“... or perhaps because of
the shocking fact that I was pregnant. The most startling thing was the
color of the sky. Violet. Or violaceous. In some places, multicolored,
although yellow predominated. I realized that I was on the coast, tossed on
some sort of boat. It was so small thay my body stuck out of it. On my bare
feet I still felt the sand that I’d been walking on a little while ago, in
my long journey over the desert. Sand, infinite like time. Are these waters
also infinite? The rocking of my boat made me feel the sea’s restlessness.
I didn’t want to set forth, but I couldn’t do anything to prevent it.
For I should say that all the while I knew that I was embarking on a voyage.
In reality, I had always been traveling. There was nobody else around, yet
even though no one seemed to be there, it was a if some invisible presence
had loosed the morings, and then my vessel, without a rudder or motor, began
a voyage that I knew I was not prepared for. Neither was I prepared for the
strange transformation of my belly, which began to shrink until I realized
that I no longer sheltered another life inside me. The continuing
trnasformation of my body, which was becoming young again, kept me from
dwelling on each stage of the process. Regression is the word for it. My
body went back to what it once had been. Even though I was lying down, I
realized that my hands were returning their virginal state; these same hands
told me that the wrinkels had disappeared from my face. Little by little my
new proportions let me arrange myself more comfortably. The swell of the
waves revealed that other tiny vessels were accompanying me. They weren’t
boats, they weren’t canoes. Rather they looked like cradles –and surely
mine too was a cradle–, cradles that were sailing in waters that now were
reddish. And it was a new yellow sky, overarching and brilliant, that
permitted me to confirm this. This strange-colored light helped me discover
that I had changed into a girl lost in voluminous clothing. Everything left
me except for the ability to comprehend, at least in part, what was
happening to me. The sky returned gradually to its original color. This
transformation coincided with a desire to sit down, which I did without
effort even though I was changing into a baby. I then witnessed the most
hair-raising scene of the whole vision. From far off, canoes appeared, and
they were as numerous as the cradles that followed in my wake, which I now
saw, were occupied by tiny children. The boats that soon crossed our path
were also inhabited by human beings, although they were old, emaciated, and
very near death. It wasn’t this that most horrified me, but rather that
these weren’t canoes but coffins, dark coffins. One of these biers was
sailing toward me. An old woman was lying down inside, wearing a
disintegrating nightgown. Soon the old woman came to, and though her face
had been ruined by time and pain, I recognized my own features, the
anguished questioning gaze that had been mine since adolescence. The woman
gestured with her arms as if she wanted to come and merge with me. I felt
the same compulsion to come together. The darkening sky and reddish waters,
now very agitated, accompanied the final moment, in which, without words, I
reached the first and the last: the cry that comes before tears.”
The text breaks off here. He who can, let him understand it.
What follows is additional information based on comments ostensibly
prepared by Frutelle’s widow for the recipient (whether direct or
indirect) of the papers.
May Frutelle explains that her husband had been able to snatch a few
words with Mr William Stead, writer, editor, and head of the Review
of Reviews, who, as has been stated, also died in the shipwreck. Those
few words, which could have formed the beginning of a friendship, now take
on a greater significance.
The night of the catastrophe, Stead, who by now was familiar with parts
of the text, and who had probably also heard the general thrust of the whole
project, was invited by Jacques Frutelle to share supper. According to May,
she could never forget the strange way Mr. Stead greeted her husband when he
approached the table. “My dear vates!” he exclaimed. Later, the menu –Saucisson
de Milan, Salade à la Russe, Consommé pâtés d’Italie...–, the
wine that gladdens and sometimes makes one see things better, and the
band’s ragtime tunes leesened the discomfort of a conversation shot
through with silence.
Not long before the disaster, and by himself now –continued May–
Jacques, who had never before demonstrated any special interest in
etymology, set himself to analyzing the word vates.
We both agreed that the latin word that Mr Stead used (which is retained in
Spanish in the noun vate and the
verb vaticinar) meant and means
poet, but also prophet, seer. Do you understand? the clever woman would ask,
without expecting an answer.
Her last comments were whimsical and unexpected: “I don’t know about
him, but I never believed in reincarnation.” For our part, we won’t take
time to reflect on this statement.
The mission of literature isn’t to modify reality or even attempt to
do so. But the monk, the mystic, the prophet, like the poet, are always
waiting for truth. The habit of constantly writing signals a disposition
open to revelations. The word is the door through which we will occasionally
catch glimpses, and then the imagination becomes a potent tool for
investigation and knowledge.
In relation to this, one can include the curious case of the North
American novelist Morgan Robertson. On the face of it a precursor of Jacques
Frutelle and inadvertant rival of Jules Verne, Morgan Robertson wrote,
fourteen years before the Titanic,
a novel that went almost unnoticed. Published in 1898, The Wreck of the Titan tells the story of a powerful steamer that,
in April, collides with an ice floe and sinks. Other coincidences also
justify our calling Morgan Robertson a vates:
the similar number of people on board, the speed, the technical
specifications of the ship... In addition, builders of both ships –the
real and the imaginary– were possessed by a fatal defiance toward those
invisible and ever-triumphant forces.
But Jacques Frutelle’s text is the truly enigmatic and moving one. Let
us stress, the break does not appear to be accidental. It was one more thing
that was bound to be destroyed by the tragedy. As in Shakespeare, silence is
master over what is hidden by words. As the old Taoist says, “They who
speak, don’t know; they who know, don’t speak.”
As in religion, though in different ways, we suspect that there has to
be something that makes so many entrust their searches to the word and that
makes those who have encountered, or at least glimpsed, the object of their
search take refuge afterward in a wise and suggestive silence.
(From Papers of the
Translated by Fred Redekop