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O Magazine

A dialogue

Barbarian Days /
The Endless Summer

It’s all down to surfing.

by Joan Pons

The Pulitzer Prize 2016, as many of you may already know, has gone to a book about surf. And no, Barbarian Days doesn’t use surf as a McGuffin to explore other territories: it’s a book about surf-surf, no excuses. What for? This memoirs of William Finnegan, surfer since the sixties whose side as writer and journalist for The New Yorker now we know was only a mere secret identity, is almost six hundred pages long encrypted in specialised jargon. Tubes, curls, peaks… and many more lexical obstacles for the profane reader who, in fact, is not quite so; in the same way one didn’t need to know about, or had any interest in, whale oil to read Moby Dick.

Barbarian Days is an adventure book, is travel literature and is an intimate portrait because surf in itself is too. These are intrinsic values. This extreme sport, so easy to turn into a spectacle, holds a black soul: any surfer knows that, even if the afternoon goes only a little wrong, he’s exposing himself to death when he jumps on his board. The fact that the tragic dimension of this kind of characters holds more literature than, I don’t know, a toreador, an alpinist or a motorcyclist (other conquerors of futile goals also risking their lives), is an attribute difficult to pin down. I think it might have something to do, going back to Melville, with 19th century nautical fiction. The same metaphorical man v nature power, the same poetics of a hero the only goal of whom is to make the indomitable less so… Or something like this, right?

It’s not the first time this happens to me with surf. A few years ago I had a hard time explaining why The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown’s 1966 film, was one of the best documentaries in history. Those who knew didn’t need many explanations (Andrés Duque, for instance, said that if he could he would play it all day at home as a loop in a screen hanging on a wall as if it were a painting). But those who didn’t… I always ended up seeing myself from the outside, making a big effort to find the definitive arguments and erase disbelief from their faces.

How to convince anyone that a non-fiction film about surf-surf is a landmark in image lyricism and not an Imax fairground ride? I tried everything: a passionate description of the anonymous figures on the peak shot back at a time when one couldn’t even dream about Go-pro; a praise of the eroticism of back-lit silhouettes; a vindication of the sliding of colours, textures, forms and counter-forms tending to abstraction; an invocation of the mental and sensorial state of the endless summer… In the end, I (almost) managed to interest them with something as simple as mentioning The Beach Boys: weren’t they great already when the made strictly surf songs that went beyond the genre and became pop gems? Well, it’s the same thing. Now, apply this to film. And after that, to literature.