A colomber is the very incarnation of thalassaphobia, the fear of the sea. A shark that is said to follow a sailor his whole life, the colomber eventually slays and eats those to whom they are bound. Sailors who have a colomber live under a pall of dread and creeping Jaws-like terror their entire careers, until shipwreck or accident sends them to their doom.
Dino Buzzati’s sea tale “The Colomber” tells the story of a sailor’s son who notices he has a colomber following him, a dark spot under the waves that only he (and blood relatives) can see.. His father tells him never to go sailing, sending him to go to school in an inland town to get as far away from the sea as possible. However, the colomber is always prowling the coast, waiting for him for when he returns to the sea, and the boy’s love of the sea never fades away.
At his father’s death, the boy, now a man, answers the appel du vide. He buys a merchant ship to take to the sea again, answering a longing shore life could never satisfy. He makes a fortune as a sailor, constantly pursued by the black shadow that trails in his wake.
At last, as a sick, old man, he sets out to confront the shark one last time. However, in a twist, the aged colomber tells him that he only meant to give him a gift, the Pearl of the Sea, which grants “good fortune, power, love, and piece of mind.”
The colomber departs for the depths and, days later, the man’s skeleton is discovered still holding onto the pebble.
The call of the abyss is heard throughout “The Colomber.” Desire for the sea and fear of it are intimately linked. Musically, the story would be a folk ballad, or perhaps the Jaws theme.. The idea that certain people have a shark appointed to them by fate also reminded me of how American soldiers fighting in Vietnam believed there was “a bullet with your name on it.” It conveys a similar feeling of fate and dread.
The ironic “Gotcha!” ending to “The Colomber” would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic that the old man lives his whole life without peace of mind. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” certainly seems to be the moral intended. The story invites the reader to think about the areas in their own life where not just fear but true dread might be keeping one from achieving inner peace. Confronting what one dreads is infinitely better than letting it hover over you for a lifetime—however, it takes courage, or even a sense of resignation, before one can stare death in the face.
Taken in another light, the story, I felt, also captures the feeling of what it’s like to procrastinate. Fear of failure or resentment at having to do the task fills one with dread. The task–or the unfulfilled life-goal–dogs you. One avoids working on it to avoid unpleasant feelings. Soon, daily life makes it impossible to focus on it; however, it is still there, waiting. However, peace of mind can be achieved by confronting it head on.
The sailor in the story is still able to live a full and meaningful life suppressing his dread, which stays in the background. However, he never gets rid of it, even though he pushes it down, below the surface, the way many unconscious fears get pushed below. The idea of having unfinished business in life that gets suppressed by the daily grind can be just as dreadful as the colomber.
Next week, I will be writing about “The Other Side of the Mountain” by Michel Bernanos (1967), a substantial, novella-sized inclusion in the VanderMeers’ anthology.