Friday, June 14, 2013

20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part 3: The Coral Kingdom

Professor Pierre Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and Canadian harpooner Ned Land, have become the unwilling guests of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, who's incredible submarine, the Nautilus, has been frequently mistaken for a sea monster. They may not be all that wrong. In our last section, Nemo gave the Professor a guided tour of his submarine, and later took him on a diving excursion through an underwater forest.

The Nautilus continues its voyage. The Professor watches the fish they pass through the windows of the Nautilus' saloon, and often goes up on deck to observe the crew hauling in their nets bringing in their daily catch of fish. On occasion, Nemo speaks to him, to rhapsodize about the sea which he loves. At one point they pass a wrecked ship which has sunken vertically, its dead passengers and crew still trapped in its cabins or tangled in its rigging.

They now pass the Hawaiian Islands, or the Sandwich Islands, as Verne knew them, and enter the South Pacific. The islands they pass in these waters are coral islands, and Aronnax suggests that from the slow growth of the coral reefs, the islands may eventually be linked together forming a new continent. Nemo replies:

"There is no need for new continents, but there is need for new men."

But this does give Verne another excuse to slip in one of his science lessons as Aronnax muses on the reef-building of the coral polyps. He describes Charles Darwin's theory of how coral atolls develop, a theory which, although overshadowed by his writings on Natural Selection, is nevertheless a significant one. When Conseil asks how long it takes for a coral reef to form, the Professor answers "A hundred and ninety-two thousand years, my lad..." And perhaps because he has just invoked Darwin, he adds what Conseil and the reader must be thinking. This span of time contradicts the Biblical account of Creation. "...which makes those 'days' referred to in the Bible a good bit longer.... However, I must add that the 'days' of the Bible represent epochs, and tnot the interval between sunrise to sunrise." Thus Verne finds away to reconcile, at least to his own satisfaction the account of Genesis with the findings of Science. Nevertheless, this heretical passage was also one of the ones Verne's original English translator decided to cut.

Continuing on through the treacherous reefs and atolls of the Coral Sea, the Nautilus pauses at the island of Vanikoro, where in 1785 a pair of French vessels sent on an expedition around the world disappeared. The site gives Aronnax and Nemo the opportunity to discuss the mystery and the voyage of Dumont d'Urville, a French naval officer and explorer who in 1828 was sent to find the missing ships. Verne loves invoking the Heroes of Science, like Charles Darwin; or Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer who at the time of Verne's writing was building the Suez Canal; or Commander Maury, the American naval officer who by compiling data from ship's logs helped found the science of oceanography. Here, in another of his educational passages, Verne tells the story of a near contemporary of Captain Cook who is little-known outside of France, (and possibly forgotten even there, considering the space Verne devotes to the man).

Professor Aronnax and his companions have now been on board the Nautilus for about two months. A new year is beginning, and Aronnax wonders what the new year will bring. "Will this year see the end of our imprisonment, or will it see the continuation of this strange voyage?"

Conseil is quite happy and content where he is, although he admits, "Ned Land disagrees with me in everything... He's a positive thinker with an imperious stomach. For any Anglo-Saxon worthy of the name the lack of bread and meat, especially beefsteaks, the lack of brandy or gin, drunk in moderation, is unthinkable."

Passing through the Torres Straits, the treacherous body of water separating Australia from the island of New Guinea, the Nautilus unexpectedly strikes a reef and runs aground. As one critic has observed, Nemo seems to have a problem colliding with things; but d'Urville had also run aground and been nearly wrecked in these same waters.

"An accident?" Aronnax asks the Captain. Nemo is unruffled. "No... an incident." The hull of the Nautilus has not been damaged. In a few more days the moon will be full, and the resulting spring tide will raise the ocean level sufficient to re-float the submarine. Nemo is content to wait.

In the meantime, the Nautilus is resting not far from an island. Ned wants to check it out. "On an island like that there are trees; under those trees there are animals, purveyours of chops and steaks, which I wouldn't mind getting my teeth into."

Conseil agrees. "Could not Monsieur obtain permission from his friend Captain Nemo to have us taken ashore, just so we don't lose the feel of terra firma?"

To the Professor's surprise, Nemo consents; and so soon Aronnax and his friends, armed with Nemo's electric rifles, are rowing the Nautilus' dinghy to the island.

Verne was a fan of a type of fiction known as a Robinsonade, stories about people surviving on desert islands as in the original Robinson Crusoe. He wrote a number of them himself, including a sort of fanfic sequel to The Swiss Family Robinson. His best exploration of this theme is probably his sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues, The Mysterious Island; but here in this next chapter, he embarks on a kind of mini-Robinsonade as Ned, the Professor and Conseil enjoy a few days on land.

Here Ned is in his glory. He's been mostly in the background for the past several chapters with nothing to do but grumble about his lack of liberty. But here he can actually do stuff. We see that he has talents besides impaling large cetaceans with harpoons; he's familiar with the edible plants and fruits of tropical islands; he can prepare breadfruit into a paste which will keep indefinitely; and he can roast a wild pig with the same skill as he can shoot it.

For his part, Aronnax is looking for rare animal specimens, and is delighted when Conseil manages to capture a rare bird of paradise. It took no skill, Conseil admits; the bird had become drunk on the fruit of the nutmeg tree which had fermented in the sun.

The three are enjoying an impromptu luau and Conseil suggests that they spend the night on the island. "What do you say we never go back?" Ned replies.

And that's when a stone lands at their feet.

The island is inhabited by Papuans, natives of New Guinea, and the three companions find themselves fleeing through the forest from a hail of stones and arrows. They get to the beach ahead of the natives, (Ned carrying the roast pig under one arm and a couple small kangaroos in the other), and row back the the Nautilus.

Verne's own contradictory feelings about race can be capsulized in brief exchange here. When the first stones begin to pelt them from the trees, Ned wonders if they were thrown by monkeys. "Or something of that order," Conseil replies, "Savages!" As we see in other places, Verne was no champion of colonialism; but in places his writing still betrays a condescending, paternalistic attitude towards the less civilized races.

Nemo, with his contempt for civilization, responds to the news sarcastically. "Are you astonished, Monsieur le Professeur, that having set foot on land, you discovered savages?" As far as he's concerned all the nations of the world are inhabited by savages. But he seems unconcerned that the Papuans might attack the Nautilus.

For a while, his confidence seems justified. The natives are not sure what to make of the Nautilus, and so for the time being they are content to simply watch from a distance. Aronnax observes that he could easily pick one of their chiefs off with his rifle, but decides that it would be better to wait. He muses that "There is a tacit agreement between Europeans and savages: Europeans may retaliate but do not attack." It does not seem to occur to Aronnax that by trespassing on the island, he and his friends were the aggressors.
From the safety of the Nautilus, Conseil happily adopts a live and let live attitude.
"What about those savages?" Conseil asked me. "If Monsieur doesn't mind my saying so, they look rather harmless to me!" 
"Nevertheless, my lad, they are cannibals." 
"One can be a cannibal and be respectable," replied Conseil. "just as one can be greedy about food and yet be a good man. One does not exclude the other."
But it is the mild-mannered, easy-going Conseil who precipiates the crisis. As the crew is drawing up the nets for the day's fishing, Aronnax finds a rare type of shell which spirals in the opposite direction than most do. "A left-handed shell!"

As the Professor and his servant examine this rarity, one of the natives shatters it with a well-aimed stone from a sling. Outraged, Conseil grabs the Professor's rifle and shoots at the native, breaking a bracelet on the man's arm. "The knave! ...I'd rather he had broken my shoulder than that shell!"

Now the unspoken truce has been broken. The Papuans board their canoes and make for the Nautilus, shooting arrows as they advance. Nemo serenely throws a switch which automatically closes the hatches, but Aronnax does not share his calm. Eventually they will need to open those hatches to replenish the Nautilus' air supply; and then the Papuans will swarm aboard.

The next day, just as the tide is finally beginning to raise the Nautilus, Nemo orders the hatches opened. As Aronnax fears, the Papuans gather around to climb down the ladder into the sub. But as soon as they try, they are hurled back as if by an invisible force! Nemo has electrified the railing of the ladder, making it impossible for anyone to enter. Terrified, the Papuans flee the Nautilus, and as the tide lifts it, precisely at the minute Nemo predicted, the submarine continues on its voyage.

For the next few days, Nemo performs experiments, recording the temperature of the ocean at different levels. Aronnax finds these experiments fascinating, but tells Nemo that because he has vowed to never return to land, no other scientists will ever benefit from his discoveries. "Since chance has joined our destinies," Nemo replies, "I can tell you the results of my observations."

Several days later, the Professor is up on deck at about the time the Second in Command performs his ritual scan of the horizon. This time, instead of reporting, "Nautron respoc lorni virch," as he usually does, he says something different. Nemo hurries up to the deck and looks out on the horizon himself. When Aronnax lifts up his own spyglass to see what they're looking at, Nemo snatches it away from him.
"Monsieur Aronnax," he said in a somewhat commanding tone, "I am asking you to observe one of the conditions of our bargain." 
"What is that, Captain?" 
"You must be confined, you and your companions, until I decide to grant you your freedom again."
Aronnax, Ned and Conseil are hustled into the cell they were originally placed in. Food is brought for them, which at first they find curious. But soon after they finish their dinner, one by one, they fall asleep, and Aronnax realizes that the food must have been drugged. Something was going down that Nemo did not want them to know about. But what?

Aronnax awakens in his own room, as if nothing had happened. He goes about his usual activities. After a while, though, Nemo comes to him and asks if he has any medical training.

During the night, one of his crew has been severely injured. Nemo is vague as to how it happened. "A collision broke one of the levers in the engine room and it hit this man on the head. The second-in-command was in danger. He threw himself forward to receive the blow -- a brother gives his life for a brother -- a friend dies for a friend -- what could be simpler! That is the law aboard the Nautilus!"

The man's condition is bad. Aronnax judges that he will die within a couple hours. There is nothing that can be done to save him. They watch over the dying man in silence for a while, then Nemo dismisses the Professor.

The next day Nemo invites Aronnax for another undersea excursion. Both Conseil and Ned join him this time, as well as several other crewmen. Nemo leads the group to a fantastic coral garden on the sea floor; a cemetary, where the dead crewman is buried in strange, silent and solemn ceremony, beside his crewmates who have died before him, in a tomb which will be sealed by the coral polyps.

Afterwards, Aronnax speaks with Nemo.
"Your dead sleep quietly there, Captain, well beyond the reach of sharks!' 
"Yes, monsieur," Captain Nemo replied gravely. "Beyond the reach of sharks -- and -- of men!"

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