Wednesday 25 July 2018

Jules Verne's Facing the Flag

Facing the Flag (Face au drapeau) is one of Jules Verne's lesser known works yet one of those in the late stages of his career that are more prescient for their insights into human behaviour than for their technological speculation. It is a slight work, only 180 pages soaking wet, and had the pleasure of being adapted into an equally obscure film by Czech auteur Karel Zeman that was translated into English as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (which is the greatest non-Hollywood adaptation of Verne, if not the the greatest adaptation period). Nevertheless, published in 1896, it contains seeds of ideas that are becoming frighteningly relevant now: unaccountable madmen wielding weapons of mass destruction.

The mad scientist and his small, but powerful, invention.
Image: Léon Benett.

Our story begins in an insane asylum with a Professor Roch, who has been incarcerated for his own good by the United States government. Roch, a French scientist, claims to have developed an incredibly powerful explosive which he has been attempting to shop around to the world's most powerful nations. The trouble is that he asks an exorbitant amount of money and provides no demonstration of the explosive. To great genius is madness closely allied, and Roch is an inherently suspicious and mistrustful person. His greed is merely a function of his desire for recognition, in this case a recognition in monetary form to the tune of millions of dollars. Each refusal made him more unhinged until finally his mind was lost in the inwardly-turned madness of offended brilliance. Tending him is the French engineer Simon Hart, masquerading as an orderly of the lunatic asylum. Hart hopes that in his ravings Roch might let slip the details of his explosive.

Along comes Count d'Artigas, a wealthy nobleman of indeterminate ethnicity who has come to pay his respects to the mad scientist he has heard so much about in the newspapers. This visit becomes the prelude to an abduction. In the night, both Roch and Hart are stolen away in gags and blindfolds. Hart feels the distinct sensation of being lowered from a raft into something, but cannot figure out what. All he knows is that he is locked in a windowless cell devoid of light whenever he is not taken on deck of Count d'Artigas' schooner. The better part of the novel concerns Hart piecing together the mystery of the abduction, ultimately learning that he and Roch are kept aboard a submersible craft tugging the schooner along to wherever lays d'Artigas' lair.

Their destination is the cavernous interior of one of the islands of the Bermudas, and in this prison Hart learns two terrifying facts. The first is that Count d'Artigas is really the merciless pirate known as Ker Karraje, his crew the band of cutthroat buccaneers assembled from the worst dregs of the Australian gold rush. The second is that Karraje has promised to give Roch everything he demands in exchange for the explosive. What are millions to men who can merely take it at will? Roch's mind has been poisoned and the opportunity for vengeance means more to him than even the gold he has no way to spend.

Navigating the tunnel into the volcano. Image: Léon Benett.

Here lies Verne's prescience. It is not in the submarines or even the explosive, but in what people would do with such limitless power. The similarities to Captain Nemo are obvious, for both he and d'Artigas have submarines docked in the caldera of tropical islands, and both pose a clear and present threat to the established political order. Unlike d'Artigas, Nemo is a revolutionary. He is a victim of his own drive for vengeance, like Roch, but his aims are ostensibly humanitarian. D'Artigas is a criminal and Roch a madman, together wielding an explosive comparable to an atomic bomb. So amenable to each other are the two stories that Disney borrowed heavily from the conclusion of Facing the Flag to give a dramatic climax to their film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In the 20 years between Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Facing the Flag submarines had become old news – even the British in Facing the Flag have one, which engages d'Artigas' ship in a thrilling duel – and powerful new types of explosive were constantly being invented. Alfred Nobel developed dynamite in 1867 and Eugène Turpin developed melinite in 1885. So close were the similarities that Turpin actually sued Verne for defamation because of the character of Roch. No, Verne's real prophetic genius was in anticipating the fear of weapons of mass destruction ending up in the hands of criminals and terrorists.

The bubbling anxiety in Facing the Flag is not that such power should exist – it already did – but what should happen if it is used by those with no accountability to themselves or others, guided by no compass or higher calling. Verne's literary universe is populated by solitary romantic geniuses, of which Nemo is the most archetypal, and I should imagine that the author would prefer such a superweapon to be employed by one of these if by anyone. Roch and d'Artigas almost read like self-parodies, a satire on the theme of the romantic genius. One is a criminal, the other is insane, and together they might very well incinerate the globe. Though make no mistake about Verne's sympathies: he over and over again finds ways to reconcile his solitary romantics to the wider society, and Facing the Flag is no different. The title derives from the pivotal moment of the story, when French warships descend on d'Artigas' lair with flags unfurled.

The troubled genius Roch. Image: Léon Benett.

At the time of its writing, Facing the Flag would have resonated on the themes of destructive power. Half a century later it would have done the same, only then with nuclear weaponry at the outset of the Atomic Age. Only now in the post-9/11 milieu, facing threats from Islamofascists, North Korea, and Donald Trump, are we really, truly acquainted with the full threat posed by Verne in his novel.

No comments: