Saturday, December 10, 2011


Most of us know Jules Verne as one of the granddaddies of science fiction. Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days... Balloons! Submarines! Weird-looking tunnel borers!

Sometimes, though, our boy liked to try his hand at somewhat more conventional storytelling. I say "somewhat" because apparently even when he staked out what a slightly later age would tend to regard as the territory of Joseph Conrad, and an even later age as that of Werner Herzog, he still went a little crazy with it – both in terms of sheer possibility and of melodrama.

Exhibit A of this kind of Verniana would be his Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, in which he, not content to simply write what the rather bland title might imply, did not confine himself to any ordinary boat trip. Our heroes and heroines do indeed travel 800 leagues on the Amazon River from Peru deep into Brazil, but this is Jules Verne: this ain't no flotilla of canoes. Klaus Kinski is not going to lose his marbles on this trip.

Instead the vessel of choice is both cargo and ship, a raft called by the local term jangada, constructed from a small forest's worth of valuable timber and big enough to transport a small village down the river. That's right: village. These voyagers build several houses, storage sheds, and even a chapel complete with church bell onto the back of this raft. A prosperous farmer's family, servants and farmhands are all making the trip.

A Wyoming girl born and raised, I suffered repeated failures of imagination as I took this journey with the family. The biggest river I knew growing up was one I could wade across to go get a snack. I was 16 before I beheld anything much bigger, the Mississippi, but the bus I was on drove very rapidly over the bridge, and thus that river's impact on me was minor. My college years were spent literally on the banks of the Hudson, but even that, even after spending four years white-knuckling a steering wheel every time I drove across the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, didn't seem like quite a big enough body of water to gently carry village on its bosom.

I just kept thinking of Fitzcarraldo, if not of Aguirre, and waiting for the journey to fail, or at least run into some major logistical problems.

But instead – exhaustive geographical and natural historical survey of the Amazon aside – Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon is actually more of an ordinary human story than that. There is crime, there is covetousness, there is young love, and an earnest tribute to good, old-fashioned, hokey honor.

There is, in other words, rather an ordinary 19th-century romance, with a bit more science than usual tossed in. This may give some readers, expecting some more proto-steampunk goodness, cause to complain; it never really becomes an exciting story, given that most of the action is provided simply by them forward motion of the current. But there is good melodrama, and the second half of the novel has a lovely cryptological bent to it.

File it under gently diverting reads.

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