Saturday, 15 February 2014

1900: 'Castaways of the Flag' by Jules Verne

We wanted to get a mix of books that have lasted through time, and ephemeral tat that we can gleefully rediscover, and we wanted to veer between books that are classics and those that are trashy, and those that manage to be both at the same time. With ‘Castaways of the Flag’, do you think we’re starting with a classic author in Jules Verne… but a largely forgettable and rightly forgotten book?

The first thing that struck me is that he’s writing an ‘unofficial’ sequel – to Johann David Wyss’s ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ from 1812. This is published fan fiction by Verne who, once dead and well out of copyright himself – will have his characters, vehicles, storylines and ideas endlessly recycled. (Arguably – the whole genre of Steampunk is all about him…) So there’s a nice irony in our plumping for a Verne story at the start of the twentieth century… and finding out that it’s a fanfic. It’s already recycled stuff. But what is he up to? Why go back to it? Were there really further stories to tell about this dreary family on their rotten island?

The story is about a bunch of them getting away from their island, and back to Britain, and then setting off again for their faraway island once more. It’s the place they want to live. They want to profit by it. The island is rich in all sorts of things that the Empire wants. Expensive stuff. Like any good entrepeneurs, the previously shipwrecked family want to turn their disaster into a business.

And the current volume is about the various shenanigans that keep them away from this ultimate dream of professionalizing their desert island lifestyle – ie, a shipboard mutiny and another bout of being castaways.

It’s the endless cycle of a story that wants to turn itself into a series, or a franchise. It has to find new ways to keep going back to the beginning…

The actual business of getting cast away and the finding of a new island and getting washed up and learning to survive all over again is pretty good, though, isn’t it..? There are a few moments of actual excitement..?

But it’s Verne. I wanted giant crabs and journeys under the Earth’s molten crust. I wanted dinosaurs. When they started gorging themselves on turtles and turtle eggs, I wanted there to be an unholy racket on the beach one morning, and a gigantic turtle – the size of a steam-powered submarine – comes galumphing up the beach to wreak revenge. I’ve been spoiled, I think, by Ray Harryhausen.

The excitement is really limited to – are we going to be able to live off turtles for the rest of our lives? And, let’s climb this very steep cliff and see if there’s another, nicer bit of island we can’t see yet… And the killing of a deer, which I found a bit upsetting, the way it was presented. These are practiced, assured colonists, aren’t they? It’s their God-given right to make use of everything they come across…

And then – there’s the most dated and dodgy aspect of the whole book. All the racist stuff about the ‘savages’ who threaten to invade the island in the last third. Verne has to provide some excitement – having established that, by great, amazing luck, the castaways have actually arrived on their own island, after all. (They’ve just been washed up and eating turtles on an unfamiliar, slightly less hospitable bit of it…) and now Verne has to get some excitement and adventure going. And so it’s all about the aboriginal Australians, who have come to the island and are making a proper mess of all the nice stuff that the Swiss Family Robinson set up in their first book… All this business reads as quite shocking now. The ‘savages’ are unindividuated. They are presented as just a dangerous mass of subhumanity.

Having said that, although all the Castaways have names and roles, they are all pretty much of a muchness, too. I came away with a feeling of not knowing anyone at all in this book.

Except, perhaps, for the injured Captain. He keeps saying – as he recovers – that this island is no place for ladies, and he wishes he was here alone with a whole load of men instead. He even says – unless I imagined it – when he’s carried ashore, that he wishes the island was a bit gayer.

So… I feel like we’ve had a dullish, disappointing book to start with. But in a way it’s paradigmatic popular fiction, isn’t it? Characters who are just a function of plot; dodgy racial stereotypes; a desperate attempt to wrest land and power away from each other; the search for home; the survivalist plot; the arduous challenges that the archetypal characters must face… and even a slightly symbolic creature who comes to guide their way, in the form of the albatross. It’s like the bare bones of an adventure story, but little else besides.

1900 is also the year of L Frank Baum’s ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, and I was thinking of Dorothy as another castaway… one who gets the measure of the place and explores and starts to change the world forever as she travels through it. (And eventually – in one of many sequels) decides to settle in the faraway land rather than return home.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I'm told that how much you enjoy Verne depends on which translation you read, and most of them are pretty bad, apparently. I found 20,000 Leagues absolutely repulsive for very similar reasons to those you've given here, but it turns out that I read one of the crap versions. I also read a crap version of From the Earth to the Moon, but found it quite enjoyable despite it being pretty much a novel length discussion of different types of metal, ratios regarding escape velocity and so on. My impression is that he was good in his time providing you also like Arthur C. Clarke (as I do), but is generally somewhat overrated - probably the Harryhausen factor as you suggest. The colonial angle always bothers me too. Very enjoyable review, by the way.