Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Adventure classics -- The hero who returns from the depths

The Mysterious Island

by Jules Verne


In last week’s post about the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania, submariners were the villains. This week, the most famous submarine captain of all is the hero. I’m talking about Captain Nemo, of course, Jules Verne’s most famous hero.

Nemo first made his appearance in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Published in 1870, Twenty Thousand Leagues purports to describe the adventures of a renegade sea captain and his futuristic submarine, the Nautilus, beginning with its first appearance in 1866. The story ended with the disappearance of the Nautilus and Nemo in a gigantic maelstrom.

In a manner similar to the later disappearance of fellow Victorian superhero, Sherlock Holmes, readers are left to assume Nemo has died. But Holmes conveniently left no corpse, allowing his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, freedom resurrect the detective.

In Verne’s case, the resurrection of popular hero Nemo occurred before he had even vanished. Blame the chronological craziness it on the serialization of novels in the late nineteenth century.

Verne opens The Mysterious Island with some of the most dramatic dialogue ever written: “Are we rising? No! Quite the reverse! We’re sinking! Worse than that, Mr. Cyrus! We’re falling!” and continues in similar fashion for half a page.

(If the dialogue in your version of The Mysterious Island doesn’t read this urgently, pick up Jordan Stump’s 2001 English translation for the Modern Library Edition, which moves the story at breakneck speed.)

The frantic characters are five escaped Union prisoners marooned in Richmond, Virginia, in March 1865, near the end of the Civil War. Not realizing the Confederacy will fall in
less than a month, the five -- engineer and U.S. Army veteran Cyrus Smith, his freed slave Neb; journalist Gideon Spillett, sailor Bonaventure Pencroft and his young ward Harbert, escape in a Confederate spy balloon, only to blown by a hurricane halfway around the globe, on the deserted South Pacific island they name Lincoln Island. (Translator Stump anglicizes some names while restoring others of Verne’s originals.)

Determined to write a story about castaways more ingenious than previous versions by Daniel Defoe or Johann Wyss, Verne set his American heroes adrift in a balloon. I can imagine his fiendish glee as he deprives the castaways of the usual wrecked ship to salvage for their everyday needs. By the time they crash on that South Pacific island, they have nothing but the clothes on their backs, their watches, a dog, and a single match. Which shortly goes out.

Desperate as their situation was, there was an unseen benefactor watching over them, a benefactor sensed but unseen until nearly the end of the book.

As his story spooled through the newspaper editions, did Verne toy with other possible benefactors before settling on Captain Nemo? Did his publisher or his reading public clamor for more about the enigmatic captain? At any rate, Verne reveals Nemo as the Americans’ unseen benefactor near the end of the book. Described as an elderly man who has been on the run for decades (although remember, he only made his first appearance in 1866, the year after the balloon castaways took flight), Nemo dies at last, sealed in the tomb of the sunken Nautilus.

Did Verne hope his readers had forgotten the chronology of Nemo’s earlier tale? Not to worry -- the ingenious story doesn’t suffer in the least from such discrepancies.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a September of young adventurers with Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson.)

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