August 1931. An ocean liner bound for Germany sets out from the Mexican port city of Veracruz. The ship’s first-class passengers include an idealistic young American painter and her lover; a Spanish dance troupe with a sideline in larceny; an elderly German couple and their fat, seasick bulldog; and a boisterous band of Cuban medical students.
As the Vera journeys across the Atlantic, the incidents and intrigues of several dozen passengers and crew members come into razor-sharp focus. The result is a richly drawn portrait of the human condition in all its complexity and a mesmerizing snapshot of a world drifting toward disaster.
Written over a span of twenty years and based on the diary Katherine Anne Porter kept during a similar ocean voyage, Ship of Fools was the bestselling novel of 1962 and the inspiration for an Academy Award–winning film starring Vivien Leigh. It is a masterpiece of American literature as captivating today as when it was first published more than a half century ago.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Katherine Anne Porter, including rare photos from the University of Maryland Libraries.
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About the Author
In late 1919 Porter moved to New York City, where she made connections that led her to Mexico. Her Mexican experiences provided subjects for the six stories in her debut collection, Flowering Judas (1930). Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1935), which included four additional pieces, was published while Porter was living in Paris. It was followed by some of the finest volumes of short fiction in the English language, including Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), The Old Order (1955), and The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Porter’s first and only full-length novel, Ship of Fools, was inspired by an ocean voyage she made from Mexico to Germany in 1931. It was the bestselling American novel of 1962 and was adapted into a popular film starring Vivien Leigh in 1965.
Over the course of her long and distinguished career, Porter taught or served as a writer in residence at universities all across the United States, wrote screenplays, gave lectures and readings, and authored articles and reviews for various publications. In 1966 she donated her papers and personal library to the University of Maryland.
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Ship of Fools
By Katherine Anne Porter
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Katherine Anne Porter
All rights reserved.
Quand partons-nous vers le bonheur?
August, 1931—The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the town they have helped to make. They live as initiates in local custom reflecting their own history and temperament, and they carry on their lives of alternate violence and lethargy with a pleasurable contempt for outside opinion, founded on the charmed notion that their ways and feelings are above and beyond criticism.
When they entertain themselves at their numerous private and public feasts, the newspapers publish lyric prose saying how gay an occasion it was; in what lavish and aristocratic—the terms are synonymous, they believe—taste the decorations and refreshments; and they cannot praise too much the skill with which the members of good society maintain in their deportment the delicate balance between high courtesy and easy merriment, a secret of the Veracruz world bitterly envied and unsuccessfully imitated by the provincial inland society of the Capital. "Only our people know how to enjoy themselves with civilized freedom," they write. "We are generous, warmhearted, hospitable, sensitive," they go on, and they mean it to be read not only by themselves but by the polyglot barbarians of the upper plateau who obstinately go on regarding Veracruz as merely a pestilential jumping-off place into the sea.
There is maybe a small sign of uneasiness in this pugnacious assertion of high breeding; in this and in the methodical brutality of their common behavior towards the travelers who must pass through their hands to reach the temporary haven of some ship in harbor. The travelers wish only to be carried away from the place, and the Veracruzanos wish only to see the last of them; but not until every possible toll, fee, extortion, and bribe due to the town and its citizens has been extracted. It is in fact to the passing eye a typical port town, cynical by nature, shameless by experience, hardened to showing its seamiest side to strangers: ten to one this stranger passing through is a sheep bleating for their shears, and one in ten is a scoundrel it would be a pity not to outwit. In any case, there is only so much money to be got out of each one, and the time is always short.
In the white heat of an early August morning a few placid citizens of the white-linen class strolled across the hard-baked surface of the public square under the dusty shade of the sweet-by-night trees, and seated themselves at leisure on the terrace of the Palacio Hotel. They stretched out their feet to cool their shoe soles, greeted the soggy little waiter by name, and called for iced limeades. They had all grown up together in the several generations, married each other's cousins or sisters or aunts, knew each other's business, told all the gossip they heard, and heard all they had told repeated to them; had assisted indeed with the intimacy of midwives at the making of each other's histories: and still they met here almost every morning on the way to their shops or offices for a last hour of repose and to catch up on the news before beginning the serious day's work.
The square was deserted except for a small, emaciated Indian sitting on a bench under a tree, a country Indian wearing weathered white cotton drawers and a long shirt, a widely curved old straw hat over his eyes. His feet with their ragged toenails and cracked heels, in sandals fastened with leather thongs broken and knotted together again, lay meekly together on the gray earth. He seemed to sleep, sitting upright, arms folded. With a drowsy motion he pushed back his hat, took out of his twisted blue cotton belt a roll of cold tortillas and ate, eyes roving or fixed on distance, setting his square teeth into the tough bread resolutely, chewing and swallowing without enjoyment. The men at leisure on the terrace did not notice him except as a part of the scene, and he seemed unaware of them.
The beggar who came to the terrace every morning in time for the early traffic appeared around the corner shambling and crawling, the stumps of his four limbs bound in leather and twine. He had been in early life so intricately maimed and deformed by a master of the art, in preparation for his calling, he had little resemblance to any human being. Dumb, half blind, he approached with nose almost to sidewalk as if he followed the trail of a smell, stopping now and then to rest, wagging his hideous shock head from side to side slowly in unbearable suffering. The men at the table glanced at him as if he were a dog too repulsive even to kick, and he waited patiently beside each one for the sound of the small copper coins dropped into the gaping leather bag around his neck. When one of the men held out to him the half of a squeezed lime, he sat back on his haunches, opened his dreadful mouth to receive the fruit, and dropped down again, his jaws working. He crawled then across the street to the square, and lay down under the trees behind the little Indian, who did not turn his head.
The men watched his progress idly without expression as they might a piece of rubbish rolling before the wind; their gaze then roved still idly but with expert observation to the working girls walking in groups to their jobs, all dressed in flimsy light-colored cotton dresses, with bright pink or blue celluloid combs in their black hair; and to the upper-class girls in formal church attire, black gauzy dresses and fine black lace mantillas over high tortoise-shell combs, going slowly, already opening their wide black fans, into the church across the square.
When the last girl had disappeared, the eyes of the lolling men wandered then to the familiar antics of creatures inhabiting the windowsills and balconies nearest them. A long gray cat huddled watchfully in the window of his own house, staring at his enemy the parrot, that interloper with the human voice who had deceived him again and again with an invitation to come and get food. The parrot cocked his bronze-agate eye towards the monkey who began jeering at him every morning at sunrise, and jeered at him all day long in a language he could not understand. The monkey, from his neighboring balcony rail, leaped the length of his chain at the parrot, who screamed and fluttered, tugging at his leg-leash. Bored with this, the monkey sidled away, and the parrot settled down to cursing monotonously and shaking his feathers. The smell of cracked coconuts in the vendor's basket on the sidewalk below tempted the monkey. He leaped downwards towards them, dangled in frenzy by his delicate waist, and climbed again up his own chain to safety.
A woman reached her bare arm out of the window to the parrot and gave him a rotten-ripe banana. The parrot, with a little croak of thanks, took it in one claw and ate, fixing a hard dangerous eye on the monkey, who chattered with greed and fear. The cat, who despised them both and feared neither because he was free to fight or run as he chose, was roused by the smell of the raw, tainted meat hanging in chunks in the small butcher's stand below him. Presently he slid over the sill and dropped in silence upon the offal at the butcher's feet. A mangy dog leaped snarling at the cat, and there was a fine, yelping, hissing race between them to the nearest tree in the square, where the cat clawed his way out of danger and the dog, in his blindness of fury, stumbled across the abused feet of the Indian on the bench. The Indian seemed hardly to move, yet with perfect swiftness and economy swung his leg from the knee and planted a kick with the hard edge of his sandal in the dog's lean ribs. The dog, howling all the way, rushed back to the butcher's stand.
One of the men yawned freely, shaking out the newspaper lying rumpled before him, and examined again the page-sized photograph of the shattered, disemboweled corpse lying near a small crater made by the exploding bomb, in the patio of the Swedish Consulate, against a background of potted plants and wicker bird cages. It had been a young Indian servant boy, the only person killed, after all. The face had not been damaged and the wide-open eyes were peacefully melancholy; one hand lay spread delicately upon a lump of clotted entrails beside him. A man at a near table got up and leaned over to look also at the photograph, and shook his head. He was an older man with an oily dark face, his white linen clothes and soft collar were sweated limp.
"A bad business, though," he said rather loudly, "a mistake, as usual!"
"Of course, and the newspaper says so, in so many words," said the younger man, agreeing with both. They began reading the editorial notice. The editor was quite certain that no one in all Mexico, and least of all in Veracruz, could wish to harm a hair of the Swedish Consul, who had proved himself a firm friend of the city, the most civilized and respectable of all its foreign residents. The bomb in fact had been intended for a rich, unscrupulous landlord who lived next door; by some fatal error never to be too severely reprobated, the explosion had taken place in the wrong house. By such mischances, the editor was well aware, international incidents of the utmost gravity might be brought about. The city of Veracruz therefore hastened to offer its most profound and heartfelt apologies to the Consul, to the great and peaceful nation which he represented, and indeed, was prepared to make any and all reparations required by civility between governments in such cases. Most fortunately, the Consul himself had been absent at the time, enjoying his afternoon aquavit and lime juice with members of his household at the home of a friend. It was the hope of every citizen of Veracruz that the Swedish Consul would consent to overlook and forgive the tragic error, since these were stern days, with danger lurking everywhere for all. In the meantime, the lamentable incident might even so have its good uses if it should serve as a warning to the heartless, shameless exploiters of honest Veracruz tenants that the Revolution had indeed arrived in its power, that the workers were adamant in their determination to put an end to social and economic wrongs, as well as to avenge themselves fully for wrongs already done them.
The younger man turned the page, and the two read on together. The editor wished to explain a further circumstance. It was clearly the fault of no one that the festival planned in celebration of the bombing had taken place after all, in spite of the awkward failure of aim in those dedicated to the work of destruction. The preparations had been made at some expense and trouble, the fireworks had been ordered and paid for eight days before, the spirit of triumph was in the air. It would have been inglorious to the last degree to have disappointed the merrymaking workers of Veracruz, their charming ladies, and their children growing up in the new world of freedom for all. That the life of an honest young boy, a humble member of the downtrodden proletariat, had been extinguished so prematurely was of course a cause for public mourning. An immense, honorable funeral was being planned for his remains, as a martyr to the great cause of liberty and justice; ample material compensation as well would be extended to his grieving family. Already two truckloads of floral offerings had been provided by voluntary contributions from every labor union in the city; there would be five bands to play funeral marches and revolutionary songs from the Cathedral door to the graveside, and it was expected that every working man and woman able to walk would be in the great procession.
"Whew, it's getting hot around here," said the younger man, running his handkerchief into the back of his collar. The older man said, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, speaking with very little movement of his lips, "These swine are going the whole way, that's plain. I haven't collected a peso of rent from any of them for more than a year, I may never collect another. They sit there in that block of thirty-five houses in the Soledad section scratching their lice at my expense—" The two looked each other quietly in the eye. "They don't seem to realize that this kind of thing can be made to work both ways."
The younger one nodded. They moved away together out of earshot of the waiters. "My shoemakers have struck four times in seven months," said the younger man. "They talk almost in my face about taking over the factory. On the day they try it, the whole plant will burn down, I promise you. Everything is well insured."
"Why do we wait?" asked the older man, a compulsive violence bursting suddenly through his guarded tone. "Why hadn't we got fifty machine guns to turn on that celebration last night? They don't own the army yet—why didn't we send for troops? Fifty machine guns? Why not five thousand? Why not a carload of hand grenades? What is the matter with us? Are we losing our senses?"
The younger man stared before him intently as if some exciting spectacle were taking place in his mind. "It's just begun," he said with a smile of relish. "Let it work up a little more to something worth doing. Don't worry, we'll smash them to pulp. They never win. They're such cattle they don't even know they are just fighting for a change of masters.... Well, I'm going to be master for a while yet."
"Not if we just sit and let them swarm over us," said the older man.
"They never win," said the younger man. They walked on.
Those left behind began to drift slowly away from the terrace, leaving their newspapers on the tables. The streets, they observed with distaste, were again beginning to crawl with the latest lot of people in town for the next boat, birds of passage from God knew where, chattering their ungainly tongues. Even the Spanish was not the Spanish of Mexico. As for the women among them, except for the occasional soft beauty of some real Mexican girl, they were always the same, no matter of what freakish nationality: middle-aged painted scarecrows too fat or too thin: and young flat-chested loud-voiced things with cropped hair striding around in low-heeled shoes, their skirts shortened to show legs never meant to be seen by any eye but God's. If any exceptions to these rules occurred, they were quite simply ignored; all strangers as such were odious and absurd. The people of Veracruz never tired of the pastime of ridiculing the looks of the foreign women, their costumes, their voices, their wild unwomanly ways—the North American ones more especially. Rich and important persons sometimes arrived and departed by those boats; but being rich and important, they hardly showed themselves except in swiftly moving motors, or in lordly pauses among their clutter of expensive luggage on dock or platform. Their looks did not so much matter, anyway; they were ridiculed on other and higher grounds. They—all unconscious and at ease as they seemed, surveying a world made for them and giving orders to everybody in sight without turning a hand themselves—they were marked for destruction, so the labor leaders told their followers, and could already be regarded with some curiosity as a disappearing race. The new crowd, the watchers decided, was regular—no better, no worse, but there were always a few amusing variations.
The clerk of the hotel came out for a glimpse of daylight, and the waiters in their stained rumpled white jackets began slapping dust and crumbs off the tablecloths in preparation for lunch. They observed with contempt that their particular share of the day's travelers was straggling in again for a rest after swarming all over the town all morning.
Certainly the travelers were not looking their best. They had crept off the train which brought them from the interior, stiff from trying to sleep fully clothed in their chairs, sore in their minds from the recent tearing up of their lives by the roots, a little gloomy with some mysterious sense of failure, of forced farewell, of homelessness no matter how temporary. Imperfectly washed, untidy and dusty, vaguely not-present in eyes dark-circled by fatigue and anxiety, each one carried signed, stamped papers as proof that he had been born in a certain time and place, had a name of his own, a foothold of some kind in this world, a journey in view for good and sufficient reasons, and possessions worth looking into at international frontiers.
Each hoped that these papers might establish for him at least a momentary immunity from the hazards of his enterprise, and the first thought of each was that he must go instantly, before the rest of that crowd could arrive, and get his own precious business settled first at the various bureaus, consulates, departments of this and that; it was beginning to resemble not so much a voyage as an obstacle race.
So far they were all alike, and they shared a common hope. They lived individually and in mass for the sole purpose of getting safely that same day on board a German ship then standing in dock. She had come from South America the long way round and she was going to Bremerhaven. Alarming rumors had sped to meet the travelers even before they left Mexico City. There were serious hurricanes all along the coast. A revolution or a general strike, time must decide which, was going on at top speed in Veracruz itself. A light epidemic of smallpox had broken out in several coastal towns. At this piece of news, the travelers had all rushed to be vaccinated, and all alike were feverish, with a crusted, festering little sore above the knee or elbow. It had been said also that the German ship might be delayed in sailing, for she had lost time getting stuck for three days on a sand bar off Tampico; but the latest word was that she was in harbor and would sail on time.
They were to travel, it appeared, more than ordinarily at their own risk, and their presence in Veracruz proved that necessity and not the caprices of a pleasure voyage drove them to carry out their intentions in face of such discouragements. They were all of them obviously in circumstances ranging from modestly comfortable to uncomfortably poor, but each suffered from insufficiency in his own degree. Poverty was instantly to be deduced by a common anxiety about fees, a careful opening of wallets and handbags, a minute counting of change with wrung brows and precise fingers; a start of terror by a man who put his hand into his inside coat pocket and feared, for one shattering instant, that his money was gone.
Excerpted from Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright © 1962 Katherine Anne Porter. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCast of Characters,
PART I EMBARKATION,
Quand partons-nous vers le bonheur? (Baudelaire),
PART II HIGH SEA,
Kein Haus, Keine Heimat ... (Song By Brahms),
PART III THE HARBORS,
For here have we no continuing city ... (Saint Paul),
A Biography of Katherine Anne Porter,