Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Magellania (1897)

At the time of his passing, Jules Verne left a number of manuscripts behind, both finished and unfinished. Always the prolific writer, even as his vision began to fail him and age-related illnesses take over, he still provided a substantive enough body of work to see regular publication (I can sympathize... Were I to die in some unforeseen accident tomorrow, this blog would still continue automatically, almost without interruption, for another year and a half). In the later stages of his life, however, Verne felt sufficient cause for asserting his political voice in ways that his publisher Jules Hetzel did not allow him in the decades before. Hetzel not only suppressed some of Verne's earliest work, like Paris in the Twentieth Century, but also some of his latest, like Magellania.

When Verne died in 1905, many of this manuscripts were recovered and rewritten by his son Michel. Magellania, for instance, was published in 1909 as The Survivors of the "Jonathan". This version did little to aid Verne's reputation as anything other than a writer of juvenile adventure stories, as Michel excised practically anything of substance. In his version, a group of emigrants en route to South Africa are shipwrecked on the furthest archipelago at the tip of South America, to be saved an reorganized by the mysterious character Kaw-djer. The End. His father's version goes much deeper than this.

Kaw-djer is another Romantic outcast of a society too small to contain him, a man in the mold of Captain Nemo but without the submarine. This anti-hero has instead fled to Magellania to live a life as free as possible from the influences of government authority. He is a pacifist, a socialist and an anarchist, recognizing that authority can only ultimately be exerted over the servile by the violent. The only social relationships he feels he needs are the immediate ones of friends and families. With his medical knowledge he traverses the islands of the archipelago with his trusted friend Karroly and Karroly's son Halg, tending to the needs of the Native inhabitants. It is they who gave him the name "Kaw-djer", which means "benefactor". In his solitary moments - and as a proper Romantic figure he has many, perched atop rocky bluffs looking upon a storm-tossed sea - his shouts his creed to the world: neither God nor master!

It must, of course, be noted that while Verne may be sympathetic to the Romantic outsider he is not in agreement with him. When recapitulating the identity of our mysterious anti-hero, Verne even gives us an odd nugget of political philosophy, contra Marx: "...society must always be based on social inequality, a basic law of nature, which must apply to humanity as well; and that finally, if justice and absolute equality are not to be found in this world, that at least they exist in the next world..." In his patented style of asking the reader rhetorical questions, Verne wonders if Kaw-djer agitated for socialist causes and quit civilization when they descended into the failure of sectarian violence.

The change to Kaw-djer's life on the fringes of the known world begin when Chile and Argentina parcel off the islands of Magellania. Once again he finds himself under the flag of a nation-state and expecting no quarter should the government officials ever track him down. Despondent, he climbs the highest windblown peak of Cape Horn to throw himself from it when he spies a ship being ripped apart by the tempest. It is the aforementioned S.S. Jonathan, filled to the brim with emigrants from the United States, Canada, Germany and Ireland but whose captain and officers have been washed overboard. Kaw-djer and his companions once again act in the interests of humanity, bringing them to a safe harbour.

Then the unthinkable happens: Chile offers the survivors title to the island they find themselves on, in the interests of building a colony. This happenstance gives Kaw-djer new hope, for there will be just one island in the whole world that suffers under no flag. Unfortunately this new colony is on the verge of being ripped apart by diametrically opposing forces, neither of which are particularly to Kaw-djer's liking. On the one hand are the advocates of social order, religious men of prestige and education looking to create a representative democracy. On the other are Communists, full-blown violent revolutionaries preparing an uprising. Just as civil war is about to begin, the mush-respected Kaw-djer stands between them and, in the end, is appointed the effective dictator of the colony.

As dictator of the colony, held in universal esteem as a natural leader who governs by the moral authority of his willingness to do what is necessary for the best of everyone, he grows as a person while weathering different crises and setbacks. Gold is discovered on the island, and far from being a cause of celebration, Verne once again cites his antipathy for the substance. The pursuit of the wretched thing only creates more suffering and social instability, which is a theme he explores in another of his posthumous manuscripts, The Golden Volcano, about the Klondike Gold Rush. Kaw-djer's final act is to stand once again upon the highest bluff of Cape Horn, not to throw himself from it, but to build a lighthouse that may guide others safely through the rocky, stormblown, chaotic waters beyond end of nations.

Reconciliation to society is a major theme of Verne's latter works. He even imparts this upon the legendary Nemo in The Mysterious Island, which he also goes from a destructive attack on society to a constructive attempt to create one. Magellania was also written in 1897, a scant eight years before his death and immediately following the death of his brother. Verne was facing his own mortality and looking back upon his life, especially his wild youth and his perceived failures (including his lack of recognition by the French literary establishment and his wayward son), and was perhaps documenting his own journey to reconciliation. Michel Verne's version was published in 1909, but the original manuscript was recovered by Vernian scholar Piero Gondolo della Riva in the archives of the Hetzel family. It was then published in French in 1997 not long after the other "lost" novel Paris in the Twentieth Century and translated to English in 2002.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent work as always, Cory.

I did notice a type-o : "The mush-respected" should be "The much-respected"