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on 22 May 2012
This is a short allegorical novel. It is told in the format of the 'story within the story'; a group of indolent Victorians becalmed in the Atlantic on their yacht, find a copper cylinder bobbing about on the waves and discover a manuscript written on papyrus in it. This framing device enables the author to explain and analyse the rest of the story (and to debate whether it is fiction, fact or philosophy).
The narrator of the manuscript is a sailor named Adam More. Accidentally abandoned by his ship (shades of Robinson Crusoe) he travels to a mysterious land (Gulliver's Travels) at the South Pole where the inhabitants love darkness and death and hate light and life. He is befriended and honoured (the people love poverty so adore finding someone they can give things to) and meets Almah. At the point where they fall in love the carefree existence becomes a nightmare: they re condemned to the highest benefit the land can offer which is the benefit of death. Thus Adam's idyllic Edenic existence is destroyed by tasting the fruit of love which condemns him to death. They are transported from that land to the 'Amir' where wicked Layelah falls in love with Adam and schemes to flee with him.
At one level this is therefore Paradise Lost. At another level this describes (Adam's surname is More) Utopia: a nowhere land where possessions are a curse so that every man does his best to do his best for his neighbour. But utopia has its dark side too.
This book is partly a cheap romance of the Lost World/ Lost Horizon ilk and partly a work of ethical philosophy. Intriguing and weird.
on 27 January 2014
This book is a window into another world on two levels: (1) It's the story of a literal other world; a fantastical place the writer of the manuscript found in the copper cylinder stumbles upon accidentally after losing his ship and fleeing from cannibals; and, (2) it's a window into Victorian views on science, polar exploration, society, the role of women, class divisions, theories of linguistics and just about everything else in between.
The story commences with four bored Victorian gentlemen stuck on their yacht in becalmed waters. Idling away their time, the obviously wealthy gentlemen stumble across the manuscript written on papyrus and sealed in a copper cylinder. They then beguile away the time by reading it out to each other, taking regular breaks to comment on what they have learned. The material for the manuscript is telling in itself: papyrus, made up of layers of plants. The material is a palimpsest (comprised of layers) and the story is one too - layers of borrowings from other texts (as another reviewer on Amazon has pointed out, there are shades of Robinson Crusoe, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, More's Utopia and Paradise Lost in here - I also found a bit of Shelley's Frankenstein in the descriptions of the native "fiends") and philosophical commentary as well as displays of knowledge about linguistics (I'm still not sure what Grimm's Law is, however!). There is also the very topmost layer which reveals what this novel really is: a Victorian sensation novel - this is referred to on at least two occasions by the four sailors discussing the content of what they find.
There's so much going on in this book - I LOVED the way that Adam More becomes accustomed to cannibalism and the strange courtship of death amongst the natives, but absolutely will not stand for a woman proposing to him - it caused him such Victorian outrage that a woman should be so forward! This book is definitely a covert criticism of the time and the division between rich and poor and the "value" of a human being. Consider: ""Then, with you, when a man procures the death of others he is honoured?"
"Why, yes; how could it be otherwise?" said the Kohen. "Is it not the same with you? Have you not told me incredible things about your people, among which there were a few that seemed natural and intelligible? Among these was your system of honouring above all men those who procure the death of the largest number. You, with your pretended fear of death, wish to meet it in battle as eagerly as we do, and your most renowned men are those who have sent most to death."
To this strange remark, I had no answer to make." (p. 119) Of course, there is no answer to make to the fact that a supposedly "civilised" society holds its citizens so cheap that it will willingly send them off to die in battle, often without the necessary equipment (as occurred in the Victorian Crimean war).
I also loved the views on Polar exploration. I can't believe that men ever believed there was a tropical realm at either pole, and yet they did! I suppose if no one had ever been there, how would you know for sure?
I love Victorian sensationalist fiction and this was great - dinosaurs, cannibals, volcanoes, human sacrifice - there's a bit of everything in here!
on 20 May 2012
James De Mille (1833-80) was a rare genius, & this book is a wonderful piece of imaginative writing. Written before Das Kapital, it even influenced the thinking of Karl Marx himself. It makes you think deeply of the modern world's infatuation with power and wealth, and in this matter it is most liberating, because it just goes to show how little these things really matter in the overall scheme of life. Entertaining, thought-provoking, wonderful! Highly recommended for anyone who wants to look at the meanings behind what mankind really wants.