Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick may contain some of the most stunning prose poetry in the English language, but it also owes its status as a masterpiece to the fact that it is long and weird. Melville begins his opus with pages of epigraphs. He then launches into an unstable mixture of an adventure story, a psychological drama, and an overwhelmingly detailed account of nineteenth-century whaling techniques. With so much grist for the mill, academics have used the 1851 novel to discuss just about everything: the contradictions between American democracy and imperialism, the emergence of queer subjectivities, and the early expression of modernism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, or ecocriticism — take your pick.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of Melville enthusiasts worldwide, I’d venture to say that much of Moby-Dick is more fun to think about than to read. I smuggle it into mandatory literature courses by assigning exactly two chapters: the first one, with the iconic phrase “Call me Ishmael,” and the forty-first, which establishes Captain Ahab’s mission of revenge. I promise students that they will understand 80 percent of allusions to the classic based on these chapters alone, and I stand by that claim.
But when it comes to Dominique Scali’s maritime epic, Les marins ne savent pas nager (The sailors do not know how to swim), I would tell them not to skip a single page.
Setting Scali’s second novel up against Melville might seem like a stretch. In interviews, she speaks to a more modest source of inspiration: the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Mermaid,” with its dark message about the sacrifices one makes for love. (In the original story, the prince marries someone else, and the mermaid dissolves into seafoam.) While Scali’s 700-page book does follow a female protagonist and has certain fable-like qualities, the author combines a master class in world building with the detail and psychological complexity that give Moby-Dick its staying power. And, unlike Melville, she understands the value of restraint.
Scali balances the allegorical sweep of her narrative with beautifully measured prose and a storyline that manages to be both explosive and subtle. It takes place on the fictional island of Ys, a key shipping hub in the middle of the North Atlantic, during a parallel eighteenth century of barques, brigs, and schooners. Here, prosperity and misery exist side by side. Citizens live in the walled city, protected from the high tides that overrun the coasts each equinox. Everyone else scrapes by on the rocky banks, as sailors, fishermen, pirates, or scavengers. In this world, “living on the shore” means “throwing nets in the air to capture birds because you don’t have guns or powder to shoot at them.”
The plot follows Danaé Poussin, an orphan who has the rare gift of knowing how to swim. Like most from her milieu, she hopes to earn her citizenship according to the rules of the so-called Healthy Rotation. This system allows new people to enter the city every year to replace those who have died, at the discretion of a selection committee. The critique of meritocracy is clever: there are few spots available and the chances of being chosen are far from equally distributed, but the shot at social mobility acts as a convenient mechanism of control. (Possible parallels stretch from elite university admissions to capitalism writ large.) Readers know from the opening pages that this social structure will be overthrown and that Danaé is, somehow, involved.
What follows is less a hero’s journey than an exploration of solidarity’s limits and the perils of vicarious fulfillment, especially for women. In a place that prizes naval exploits above all else, few become citizens. Danaé’s best chance of accessing the city is to be invited by a man as his guest — at the risk of being expelled again should he betray her. Each section is named after a key figure in her life, including a fencing master who accepts her as an adopted daughter, a smuggler who drifts toward increasingly violent piracy, and an insurance broker who embodies the decadence and petty politics of urban life. Will their affection help her move forward, and would this be a triumph or a trap? The fencer insists that “she must not settle for being the daughter or guest of a citizen, she must swim every day, she must never stop swimming because it will be through swimming that she enters the city.” He might be right that she should develop her own skills. Yet so is she when she calls out the individualism of people who abandon their loved ones to join the elite: “Those who leave, they always say the same thing: it’s for our own good.”
Scali demonstrated her investment in setting with her first novel, À la recherche de New Babylon (In Search of New Babylon). That depiction of the nineteenth-century American frontier earned her a nomination for a 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award and rapturous comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. Les marins ne savent pas nager takes this commitment to another level. The prose is thick with seafaring terms, and the inhabitants of Ys have their own way of speaking that draws on their maritime lifestyle. For example, being someone’s “matelot,” the shipmate with whom one shares a berth, is so significant in this society that people use the invented verb “s’amateloter” to describe becoming a couple.
Even with such precision, the book remains achingly poetic. Many of Scali’s sentences have the ring of proverbs, as when one character dismisses swimming because, in the case of a shipwreck, “to swim is to suffer longer and to survive is to die more slowly.” Other passages reinvest the language of sailing with emotional weight. The shore dwellers believe that “you can stumble over someone’s beauty as on a reef,” and they compare falling in love to the damage suffered by ships: “Sometimes a hurricane might capsize you . . . but there was above all the stream of water that slips in through small openings. By the time you’ve located it, you’re in its flows up to your waist.”
As with these steady leaks, Les marins ne savent pas nager ends on a note that is more delicate than Melville’s sinking of the Pequod. The battles are ultimately less important than Scali’s meditations on the nature of revolutions and recognition. It all adds up to a remarkable achievement: a novel about the sea that escapes the shadow of the white whale. Through a startling combination of ambition and talent, Scali has written a classic that stands on its own.