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A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (Oneworld Classics) Paperback – 25 Nov 2009
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About the Author
The Canadian James De Mille (1833-80) was an academic and rhetorician who published many works of Victorian popular fiction. He is mostly known today for his novel A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder which was serialized posthumously in Harper's Weekly in 1888.
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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.
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!
The author has obviously been influenced by Defoe and Swift in the execution of this work. There are also strong parallels with More's Utopia. In fact the principal character is named Adam More which may be an indication of the authors intent.
However, unlike Thomas More, the author's principal aim does not appear to be that of championing communism and republicanism. Rather, he seems to be, in his description of the Kosekin and their society, taking the notion of cultural relativism to extremes. Thus not only do the kosekin despise wealth, power and status, they love the dark and hate the daylight, extol death and defeat as sought after virtues, and yearn for the anguish and torment of unrequited love. Furthermore they frequently indulge in the practice of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. These are behavioural patterns and values that appear totally grotesque and unreal from the perspective of most human societies. In this sense the author goes beyond satire and deconstructs human subjectivity in order to delineate the ''other'', that oppositional quality that lies dormant within humankind and is the object of all our antagonism.
Arguably this novels is to some extent years before its time in terms of the underlying themes running through the narrative. That is the idea that human nature and social values is not some thing fixed and eternal for all times and places. De Mille therefore not only presages Marx but also appears to reflect a Nietzschean vision of morality.
From a literary perspective, this novel is written in a clear lucid prose style. It is entertaining in its own right and proved to be an enjoyable read. By all rights, it should be at least a minor classic. Why this is not the case is anybody's guess! However, a major drawback of the present text as other reviewers have noted is that it concludes rather abruptly almost as if the author had suddenly lost interest in developing the narrative any further.
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