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It's a mystery all right!
on 6 December 2014
NOTE: THIS REVIEW REVEALS SOME DETAILS OF THE PLOT, IN ITS DESCRIPTION
For those who possibly aren't aware of it, 'The Mysterious Island' is a sequel of sorts - a continuation of (or rather, a conclusion to) those adventures involving the various characters previously introduced to us through 'Captain Grant's Children' and, of course, 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea'. To many, I suspect its appeal will principally lie in the return and ultimate demise of a certain Captain Nemo...
The book charts the endeavours and exploits of a hapless band of fugitives, who - during a terrible storm - crash their stolen balloon on a remote Pacific Island, after escaping imprisonment during the American Civil War. Their early days are an arduous struggle for survival; but under the leadership of Cyrus Harding (an impossibly clever, adept, and resourceful individual - given that he was merely a captain in the Unionist cause!), they not only manage to survive but flourish - developing their very own microcosmic version of civilisation, with all of the many comforts of home - as for years, they wait for a chance of rescue. Yet all the while, something haunts them in their efforts - the suspicion of an unseen hand, benevolent, which guides and helps them through...
In other words, sad to say - the characters, the setting, and the plot will appear thoroughly ridiculous to the modern reader - and that's before I even dare to mention the castaways' preternaturally gifted orangutan companion, Jup! Some readers will no doubt conclude that its quaint but incongruous elements combine to lend the novel a period charm; I, on the other hand, consider that they contribute only to feelings of exasperation and a sense of the absurd!
'The Mysterious Island', indeed, shares many of the worst and defining characteristics of a typical Jules Verne novel: the vigorous opening chapters that subside into a processional and turgidly dull middle section (suggestive of an author who tended to become acutely aware of the onerous nature of the task in hand, once embarked, and who frequently baulked at the challenge of writing it and at the same time making it an entertaining read), only to be belatedly relieved at the conclusion through the means of a rousing finale (that is - his enthusiasm would most often return only when the finishing line came finally into sight!) Then there's Verne's writing style: as a French writer, perhaps he has been the victim (more than most) of consistently unsympathetic translations of his works into English; but I have always personally found his prose to be awkward and unsure, and never once threatening to aspire to any finesse or lyricism. But what of Nemo, I hear you ask...
This is very definitely NOT the Captain Nemo we encountered in 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea'. For this novel, Verne quite unbelievably decided to completely re-invent what is arguably the most interesting single character he has ever created. What we are treated to (when that enigmatic individual is eventually introduced) is a fairly embarrassing depiction of an aged and dying man as a sort of revered demi-god, reclining on his divan (read, 'catafalque'!) in the vast saloon of the Nautilus, waiting to breathe his last...! I hope it won't spoil the experience of anyone who does decide to tackle this novel if I reveal that we don't meet up with Nemo until page 474 of this edition...and that, by page 490, both he and the Nautilus are lying forever at the bottom of the sea! What should have been by far the most intriguing element of this novel, then, has not only been ruined and distorted by the author to an unacceptable level but has also been under-used and squandered, too, to a reprehensible degree. It's a travesty!
So (and this is only my opinion, remember): buy and read this book if you really must discover the ultimate fate of the venerable Captain Nemo; but otherwise, it may not be worthy of the effort you give it since it's certainly no great literary accomplishment or work of art!