Friday, December 24, 2010

Jules Verne - Five Weeks in a Balloon

Jules Verne was rather a prolific writer. Many of his novels have gone down in history as representing the hopes for a technological future. One in which nothing was beyond the realms of human achievement so long as the technology could be invented. In doing this he created incredible adventures, often populated with tremendous machines and larger than life heroes.

Five Weeks in a Balloon was Verne's first novel. It's rather more sedate then some of the others, and the specific nature of the voyage described inside means that the story line is mostly a collection of experiences of observations from a hot air balloon as it crosses the African continent. Verne was writing in the era of Livingstone and Stanley and other great explorers. Africa was one of the few places that Europeans hadn't quite got their heads around yet. Important discoveries remained - the exact route of the Nile, the origin of other cities and what places like Timbuktu were really like. It was fertile ground for an adventure novel, and by placing his explorers in a balloon, Verne doesn't have to explore in great detail what life was really like on the ground below.

Though the Africa Verne does describe is very much that of the Victorian fantasy. Africa is populated by savages and cannibals and all sort of other prejudices against the people who live there. Here is Verne describing a battle between two tribes that the balloon passes over;

"The mutual massacre continued with axe and assegai. As soon as an enemy fell... his adversary would at once cut off his head. The women, mingling with the tumult, picked up these bleeding heads and piled them up at either end of the battlefield, often fighting among themselves for possession of the hideous trophy".

Here we have combined the vision of the African as a savage, so savage that African women actually take to the battlefield and fight over the human remains. Why might they do this? Verne continues;

"The chief of one of these savage armies was distinguishable by his athletic build.. once he hurled away his blood-stained assegai, threw himself upon a wounded man, cut of his arm with a single blow, picked it up and, raising it to his mouth, bit into it with his teeth".

Such cannibal behaviour is too much for our heroes, who shoot the chief with a rifle from their vantage point above the battle.

The heroes themselves are cut from singular cloth. The organiser and chief explorer, Dr. Fergusson, who invents the new type of balloon capable of making the trip and is destined for scientific greatness, is the archetypal hero. So much so, that as a boy he "never appears to have known fear, quickly displayed a bright intelligence, an inquiring mind, a remarkable propensity for scientific work. In addition he displayed unusual skill in getting out of difficulties. Nothing ever perplexed him, not even the handling of his first fork, with which children are not as a rule very successful."

With such children in their midst, how could Europeans fail to bend the rest of their world to their will?

The storyline itself is mostly the observations from the balloon. One of the travellers, Fergusson's manservant, displays ample self knowledge when he sacrifices himself to avoid the balloon being destroyed. But Fergusson, ever the Victorian gentleman, rescues his servant in reward for his selfishness. Rescue features again later, when a European explorer is rescued from the hands of a murderous tribe.

Verne puts moral codes at the heart of the story. The servant who always knows his place and will do whatever his master wants. The loyal friends who never give up searching for their lost companions, the difficult choices faced by those who find great wealth in the desert, but can't carry it in an over-laden balloon.

The novel itself probably found a great audience on it's first publication, catering to the mass audience that was fascinated by newspaper tales of exploration. It should be read today, chiefly for it's insights into the moral codes and prejudices of Victorian society.

No comments: