Monday, 2 January 2017

The Mysterious Island

Jules Verne The Mysterious Island (1874)
It seems that appreciation of Jules Verne is somewhat reliant upon which translation you happen to be reading, for there are apparently many. I hated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and everyone in it, so hopefully that was one of the ropey versions. Conversely, I enjoyed From the Earth to the Moon well enough, and have generally found this one to be likewise a decent, if slightly insubstantial read. Both turn out to have been translated by Lowell Bair and for the sake of argument, I'm going to pretend this is entirely the work of Jules Verne - as opposed to Verne given particular emphasis by the aforementioned Bair - because it'll get too complicated otherwise.

The Mysterious Island reads more or less like somebody novelised a few issues of Understanding Science, the sixties kids' magazine building up week by week into etc. etc. First we meet our balloonists, all chaps of good progressive stock, plus a plucky hound and an African-American man included presumably as representative of racial equality and the abolitionist cause against slavery - which is nice although Verne doesn't actually seem to give him much to say, so mostly he's just hanging around following orders and sawing up logs or whatever. Oddly, although this novel continues what I presume must have been Verne's fascination with America as a newborn civilisation doing its best to get things right, we still find some influence of the typically nineteenth century notion of class as an inherent quality; so with the African-American Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged as a roughly equal partner, we're apparently left with a gap which is quickly filled by Jupiter the orang-utan, tamed and rendered a loyal servant at least until Verne gets bored of the idea and he vanishes from sight barring a single reference near the end. I mention this only because it struck me as odd.

Our boys find themselves marooned on the island in what might be read as a re-run of Robinson Crusoe, or perhaps even an inversion. Being enlightened men they immediately throw themselves into the task of civilising the wilderness by means of all their scientific knowledge, smelting iron, making tools, even fashioning glass for their fancy cave, and with no time for Crusoe's philosophising or even much thought beyond their present circumstances. Just like the America from which they came, they're building a new world rather than looking to the horizon in hope of getting back to the old one, so there's a lot of talk about how to make rope, drain lakes, the manufacture of wire for telecommunications and so on; and against all odds, it's actually very readable, even engrossing. This I find of particular interest given the poor reputation of what has come to be regarded as Gernsbackian science-fiction, so named after the editor of Amazing Stories who favoured this kind of technologically-fixated narrative, much to the more recent annoyance of Brian Aldiss; and yet it is only a variation on what Verne wrote.

The Mysterious Island is additionally a sequel of sorts to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in so much as that it ends with Captain Nemo revealed as the hidden author of certain mysterious occurrences on the island. This conclusion feels a little tagged on given the mysterious occurrences having been mostly underwhelming, but I suppose it keeps the novel from being a couple of hundred pages about the best way to build a boat. There's a possibility that Bair's translation may lose some of the poetry of the original because I otherwise have to wonder why this should be regarded as a classic. This isn't so much a criticism of any failings it may have so much as to acknowledge that it doesn't really do very much as a narrative; but then for something which doesn't do very much, it's nevertheless a highly satisfying read.

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