Thursday, June 20, 2013

20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part 4: Treasures of the Deep

Captain Nemo has been showing Professor Aronnax and his companions some of the secrets of the ocean deeps; but there are some secrets which must remain hidden.

Aronnax is still puzzling over the events of the night Nemo had them confined in their cabin. What was it that Captain Nemo didn't want them to see? And what was the nature of the "collision" which resulted in the death of one of Nemo's crew?

The Nautilus is now in the Indian Ocean. As they approach Ceylon, the present-day Sri Lanka, which Aronnax describes as "that pearl that hangs from the lower lobe of the Indian peninsula"; Nemo asks the Professor if he would like to visit the island's famous pearl fisheries. Since the harvesting season hasn't started yet, they can go on a diving excursion to see the oyster beds up close.

"By the way," Nemo adds casually, "I suppose you are not afraid of sharks?"

As a matter of fact, this was not a subject to which the Professor had given much thought. Until now. The thought of hunting sharks ("It's an excellent sport," Nemo assures him) in the animal's own element makes him break out in a cold sweat.

His worries about huge jaws bristling with rows of razor-sharp teeth are interrupted by Ned and Conseil, to whom Nemo has extended the same invitation. (He made no mention to them about the sharks, though). Conseil asks the Professor to tell them a bit about the pearl fisheries, which provides an excuse for another of Verne's educational bits. But as the Professor expounds on the natural history of pearls, his mind is on another species of marine creature.
"... I have even heard of an oyster -- though I have some doubts on the matter -- that contained no fewer than one hundred and fifty sharks." 
"One hundred and fifty sharks!" cried Ned Land. 
"Did I say sharks?" I exclaimed. "Of course, I meant one hundred and fifty pearls. Sharks wouldn't make sense."
Finally, he breaks down and tells them about the possible danger from sharks, hoping that if his friends don't want to take the risk, it will give him an excuse to back out himself. No such luck. Although Ned is prudent enough that facing sharks gives him pause, he'd not particularly afraid of them. And Conseil happily announces "If Monsieur is prepared to face the sharks... I see no reason why his faithful servant should not be at his side."

In their trip to the oyster beds, Nemo takes them to a secret grotto containing a huge oyster, undiscovered by the pearl fishers. Opening the shell, Nemo shows them an enormous pearl, about the size of a coconut. He leaves the pearl where it is, so that it might grow over more seasons.

Returning from the grotto, they spot a native diver, who has come to fish for pearls before the regular harvest. A poor man, like most pearl divers, he has no diving apparatus save a large stone tied to his foot to anchor him in his dives, and practice in holding his breath. He doesn't see Nemo, but when a shark moves in to attack the man, Nemo interposes to save him.

To me this is one of the most exciting scenes in the book; right up there with the squid battle later on. The first copy of the book that I got from the library when I was young had a beautiful color plate by Kurt Weiss depicting Nemo, armed only with a knife, battling the vicious shark. Nemo is almost sheared in half by the creature's mighty jaws, but Ned finishes it off with his trusty harpoon. They bring the diver to the surface, and Nemo gives the terrified man a small bag of pearls before returning to the sea.

When they return to the Nautilus, Nemo gravely thanks Ned for saving his life. "I was repaying a debt, that's all," Ned answers. In the original French he says "C'est une revanche," which literally means "It was revenge," but also has the sense of "payback", or the paying of something owed. A grim flicker of -- not exactly friendship, because Ned and Nemo will never like each other -- but a mutual recognition of each other's honor.

Aronnax also comments on Nemo's altruistic act in saving the life of the pearl diver.
"That Indian, Monsieur le Professeur, lives in the land of the oppressed, and I belong, and -- to my last breath -- will always belong to that land!"
What doesn Nemo mean by that remark? Is he saying that he is an Indian too? Or is he making a general statement of solidarity with all the oppressed people of the world?

Throughout the entire book, Aronnax tries to figure out Nemo's nationality. Originally, Verne intended for Nemo to be a Polish nobleman, whose family had been killed by the Russians. In a later chapter, we see a glimpse of Nemo's cabin where he has portraits of his heroes which include, among portraits of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and John Brown, the Polish patriot Kosciusko. Verne's publisher, Pierre Hetzel, was worried that having the Russians be the bad guys would hurt book sales in that country, so he persuaded Verne to make Nemo's nationality and the target of his obsessive vendetta a mystery.

It isn't until a later book, The Mysterious Island, that Verne fills in Nemo's backstory. He reveals that Nemo was actually an Indian prince named Dakaar, whose family was killed by the British during the Sepoy Mutiny. (Apparently Hetzel didn't care if the British were offended by this; maybe the British aren't as touchy about these things.) So perhaps Nemo is being literal when hes says of the poor Singhalese diver, "I am of that country." Then again, the chronologies of Twenty Thousand Leagues and The Mysterious Island are inconsistent, so I'm not sure if I buy the "Prince Dakaar" story. I prefer to leave his background mysterious.

Leaving India behind them, the Nautilus crosses the Arabian Sea and enters the Red Sea. Aronnax is a little surprised that Nemo is going this way, since the Red Sea is effectively a dead end. At the time the story takes place, Aronnax's countryman, the engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, is still working on constructing the Suez Canal; and even if the canal was completed, the Nautilus could scarcely pass through its locks.
Nemo assures the Professor that they will soon be cruising in the Mediterranean. He knows of an underground passage running beneath the Isthmus of Suez, running roughly parallel to de Lesseps' canal. He explains that he found it "By chance and by reasoning ... but more by reasoning than by chance." And Nemo goes on to give a splendid demonstration of the Scientific Method.
"...I had noticed that in the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean there were many fishes that were identical -- ophidia, fiatoles, girelles, exocoeti, persegaw and joels. Having assured myself of this fact, I asked myself whether any communication existed between the two seas.... I therefore fished a great number of specimens in the Suez waters. I passed a copper ring through their tails, and threw them back into the sea. A few months later, off the coasts of Syria, I caught some of them again, identified by their copper rings. I had therefore proved that there was some passage between the two seas. I looked for it in my Nautilus, discovered it, sailed through it, and before long, Professor, you, too, will have traveled through my Arabian Tunnel!"
Observation; Hypothesis; Testing; Conclusion. It's called Science.

Ned Land is less interested in how Nemo discovered his "Arabian Tunnel" than he is in the fact that they are now sailing in more civilized waters. He's been keeping mostly quiet for months, but now that they are nearing Europe, escape is becoming a practical option.

The Professor protests that Nemo is unlikely to permit any opportunity of escape to arise and urges Ned to be more patient and wait to see what the future brings. The truth is, Aronnax doesn't wish his voyage to end; he is torn between his scientific curiosity and his duty to his friends. Ned calls him out on it.
"Monsieur," continued Ned. "Let us assume the impossible. Suppose the Captain were to offer you your freedom now -- this very day -- would you accept?" 
"I do not know," I replied. 
"And if he were to add that the offer he is making to you today would never be renewed? Would you accept?" 
I did not answer. 
"And what does my friend Conseil have to say about all this?" asked Ned Land. 
"Your friend Conseil," replied the worthy lad calmly, "has nothing to say. He is absolutely unconcerned in this matter. Conseil is a bachelor just like his master and just like his companion. He has no wife, he has no parents, he has no children, waiting for his return home. Conseil is in the service of Monsieur, and he thinks like Monsieur, he talks like Monsieur, and to his great regret, he cannot be counted upon to decide this issue. Only two persons are facing each other here: on one had we have Monsieur, on the other Ned Land. Conseil is here to listen, and he is ready to keep score."
Forced into a corner, Aronnax promises that if the opportunity arises, he will help Ned escape. But he warns Ned that they are likely to only get one chance; if they try and fail, Nemo will never let them have a second opportunity.

While pausing in Greek Archipelago, near the island of Crete, they see a man swimming alongside the Nautilus. Captain Nemo signals to the swimmer, and has his men prepare a chest full of gold ingots which they bring up to the deck. Nemo explains that the man is Nicholas "The Fish", a native of the Greek islands known for swimming long distances; but he does not explain about the gold.

From there, the Nautilus speeds across the Mediterranean, passing the Straits of Gibralter in less than forty-eight hours. The Professor gets only glimpses of fish through the windows of the Nautilus' saloon, as well as the hulks of centuries worth of shipwrecks. Traveling so quickly, they have no chances to attempt Ned's plan of escape.

Until entering the Atlantic, when the Nautilus turns north up the coast of Portugal. "This evening we will be only a few miles off the Spanish coast. The night is dark. The wind is blowing in from the sea. You have given me your word, Monsieur Aronnax," Ned says, "and I am counting on you." Ned has already hidden oars and provisions in the Nautilus' dinghy, as well as a wrench to unbolt it from the deck. At nine that night, when Nemo will be in his cabin asleep and the on-duty crew busy in the engine room, they will rendezvous and make their attempt.

Aronnax spends a tense next few hours. He doesn't want to leave the Nautilus. What's more, he feels no little guilt at betraying Nemo, and dreads the possibility of meeting him.

As he waits in the library, the sounds of the engines cease and the Nautilus comes to a halt. Nemo appears, and, not seeming to notice the fact that Aronnax is dressed for outdoor travel, proceeds to give the Professor a lecture on Spanish history; in particular, a incident where a fortune in gold brought back from the Americas was scuttled by the Spanish to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. This incident happened at a place called Vigo Bay, which is where the Nautilus is right now.

Aronnax understands. Nemo has paused to "transact some business with his banker," as he later explains to Ned. Nemo knows of many sunken ships all over the ocean floor which are the source of his incredible wealth.

When the Professor mildly comments that the gold Nemo has liberated from the ocean floor is not going to benefit anybody, the Captain becomes angry. "What makes you think that I do not make good use of them? Do you think that I am unaware that there are human beings who are suffering, people who are oppressed int the world, wretches who need to be comforted, victims to be avenged?"

Now the mystery of Nikky the Fish and the casket of gold becomes clear. The island of Crete is currently under Turkish domination and the natives are fighting for independence. Nemo is taking the gold he retrieves from the ocean and funneling it into insurgent movements all over the world. Aronnax realizes that Nemo has not broken all contact with the surface world after all.
Whatever the reasons may have been that had driven him to seek his independence under the seas, he had remained a man, in spite of all! His heart was still beating for suffering humanity, and his immense charity was given not only to oppressed races, but to the unfortunate individual as well!
 NEXT:  Atlantis, an eco-unfriendly bloodbath, the South Pole and Trapped Beneath the Ice!

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