A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pirate Freedom’

Though it can’t be compared in length, density and complexity to the earlier work, Pirate Freedom has a lot in common with The Wizard Knight. And it has enough elements in common with Soldier of Sidon for it not to be inaccurate to paint it as a hybrid of its two immediate predecessors.
Pirate Freedom, like Soldier of Sidon, is primarily a work of historical fiction, dedicated to an accurate depiction of the great era of Caribbean pirates, as carefully researched as the Egyptian book, and presented honestly through the eyes of an outsider, absorbing and reflecting the culture revealed.
And at the same time, Captain Chris, Crisofero, Father Christopher – the man has several names depending on where and when he is – is another unreliable narrator in the mould of Able of the High Heart: naïve, removed from his ‘natural’ world by some never explained means that dumps him in a world to which he has to become used, in which he proves to be implausibly successful, and, especially like Able, can’t tell a half decent story worth a damn.
Chris, like Able, tells his story via the medium of a long letter, this time to a stranger. He’s awkward, prone to lose where he is and writes as if he’s talking to someone and has to continually keep interrupting himself to tell his listener that he’d better tell him things.
But he’s not merely a retread of Able, because Gene Wolfe doesn’t do retreads, but also because there are significant differences between the two: Able/Art was a contemporary boy, from a ‘real’ America, translated to a mythical universe, whereas Chris comes from a near (early Twenty-First Century) future, who travels back into the past.
Chris’s story, after a short introduction, setting up that he is telling this story to an acquaintance who has asked him for it, begins with the Communist regime falling in Cuba. Chris’s father moves to Havana to (shades of the Battista era) a casino, and places his son in a monastery for his education (and safety?) Dad never comes back, Chris studies with a view to becoming a priest but decides not to remain in St Bartolomo.
And there’s a casual, solitary mention of Chris being extra tall because his father had engineered him that way (very Beaker Parrish from Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller).
But that’s the only SF reference in the book, unless you count Chris’ translation in time. He leaves the monastery to walk into Havana but by the time he gets there, Havana’s not there because it hasn’t been built yet. Chris has gone back in time, without explanation or rationale or any better purpose than to drop him into the age of piracy, where, for no particularly detectable purpose, he lives several years as a pretty good pirate.
And at the end of the book, and after having the development telegraphed several times over (by which I don’t just mean telegraphed by Gene Wolfe’s standards but actually telegraphed), Chris goes back to his own time by the same unexplained and purposeless means.
In between, Chris recounts his progress into piracy and captaincy, not to mention his relationship with Novia, one of several women who dote upon him and want to do it with him all the time. There’s a housemaid and her mistress and a couple of native women and, to be honest, Wolfe renders the question of who is who so densely that, apart from her being Spanish, I can never entirely be sure which one Novia is.
Either way, this Roman Catholic novitiate, who kills a lot of people, does it very frequently with Novia (and the others), represents Novia as his wife though they have undergone no religious or legal ceremony, and fathers a baby upon her out of anything but their own personal wedlock. Wolfe is himself a very devout Catholic, so there is a great deal of musing upon what is owed to God or what we wishes us to do, but this is bending the principles more than somewhat.
Meanwhile, Chris, like Able, is stronger and harder than those around him, though not strong enough to resist two gang-rapes on his first voyage. Furthermore, like Able, he is a much more than competent strategian, tactician, analyst, whatever word you choose to use, than anyone around him.
Chris’s account of his piratical history is continually punctuated by interjections as to his life back in his own time as Father Chris, and how he practices his faith (there is one point at which Chris gives an opinion on the thorny subject of Priests abusing young boys where he or Wolfe goes very much too close to victim-blaming, saying that the boys should have been taught to fight back: that Chris acknowledges that he can be accused of that very thing doesn’t alter the fact that it is victim-blaming, and that Chris is unrepentant of his views).
He’s also forever punctuating his account by pointing out how real piracy and real pirate ships and crews went about things totally differently from what we have seen on television and in films. Between this, overly didactic approach, and Wolfe’s deliberate awkwardness in telling the story through Chris, I found things very frustrating, and despite the different subject, entirely too much like The Wizard Knight for my reading comfort.
And the absence of any mechanism for Chris’s two time jumps I found very disappointing. Wolfe is a far better writer than that, so I can only put it down to a deliberate decision. Of course, the standard response to any ignored information in a Wolfe novel is to immediately start working out what lies buried beneath. After all, Chris does mention late on that his surname is almost impossible for anyone else to pronounce, impossible to shorten and beyond the capability of signal flags, which is an open invitation to Wolfe scholars to discover it.
But I am no Wolfe scholar, as you may well have surmised by now. Chris’s name, the mechanism for his time jumps, are mysteries that remain mysteries because they are too far detached from the purpose of the story. And like high fantasy, I an not enough of an aficianado of pirates to ultimately want to know that badly.
This book is the true beginning of the slow decline. There is still interesting writing to follow. But the great books, the ones of legend, have been written.

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