Based on a true story, Franzobel wrote an impressive and unusual novel about the most unsettling of all questions: How far will people go for their own advantage, and what are their motivations? While some books warn about the consequences that arise when the thin veil of civilization is lifted, Franzobel steps it up a notch and also demonstrates how the lowest of insticts are already woven into the fabric of that veil.
In 1816, the frigate "Méduse" set sail in Rochefort, France, to receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis, Senegal, then an important center of commerce, including the international slave trade. On board: Almost 400 people, among them government officials, soldiers, emigrants, and around 160 crew members. The ship's captain, de Chaumareys, attained his position due to family ties and by being an ardent royalist, but he lacked the knowledge to navigate the Méduse. Instead of listening to his able crew members, he trusted his friend Richeford to help him keep the frigate sailing in the right direction, but Richeford was just as ignorant as the captain himself. When the Méduse ran aground on a sandbank and there were only six lifeboats, a raft was built and finally abandoned, unable to navigate, in the middle of the ocean - 13 days later, only 15 of its ca. 150 passengers could be saved.
Franzobel adds his rather unique style of literary imagination to these historic events, and vividly describes why and how the structures on board failed, how individuals contributed to and then justified the turn of events. The power of the story lies in the fact that this is a catatrophe, but not a tragedy: The destiny of the Méduse was not inevitable, the mistakes were not innocent, the lies were no white lies. The raft, where the majority of those who failed to prevent the irresponsible decisions of the higher ranks end up, becomes a floating hell, dominated by hunger, fear and madness, where the lowest human instincts take over (and yes, there is also cannibalism).
Franzobel uses a sharp modern language and also introduces a very subjective kind of meta-commentary to tell this 19th century story. To help the reader identify his many characters, he invents a distinctive way of speaking for almost every one of them: A stutter, a tendency to speak in proverbs, a dialect, mannerism, or even speech impediment. Although the author sometimes gets a little carried away by his own ideas - look what I can do! - the reader has to admit: Yes, Franzobel can do a whole lot!
Almost unneccessary to say that while there are clearly some specifics of the French Restauration at play, the dynamics Franzobel describes reach beyond that and feel shockingly current. A gripping, fascinatig, and haunting read that already won the Nicolas Born Prize last week.
Btw: The painting "Le Radeau de la Méduse" ("Das Floß der Medusa" / "The Raft of the Meduse"), which is shown on the novel's cover, was painted in 1819 by Théodore Géricault and is exhibited at the Louvre in Paris (https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/raft-medusa).