Thursday, February 01, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #22: L'École des Robinsons

"An island to sell, for cash, to the highest bidder!" said Dean Felporg, the auctioneer, standing behind his rostrum in the room where the conditions of the singular sale were being noisily discussed.

"Island for sale! island for sale!" repeated in shrill tones again and again Gingrass, the crier, who was threading his way in and out of the excited crowd closely packed inside the largest saloon in the auction mart at No. 10, Sacramento Street.

The crowd consisted not only of a goodly number of Americans from the States of Utah, Oregon, and California, but also of a few Frenchmen, who form quite a sixth of the population.

Mexicans were there enveloped in their sarapes; Chinamen in their large-sleeved tunics, pointed shoes, and conical hats; one or two Kanucks from the coast; and even a sprinkling of Black Feet, Grosventres, or Flatheads, from the banks of the Trinity river.

The scene is in San Francisco, the capital of California, but not at the period when the placer-mining fever was raging—from 1849 to 1852. San Francisco was no longer what it had been then, a caravanserai, a terminus, an inn, where for a night there slept the busy men who were hastening to the gold-fields west of the Sierra Nevada. At the end of some twenty years the old unknown Yerba-Buena had given place to a town unique of its kind, peopled by 100,000 inhabitants, built under the shelter of a couple of hills, away from the shore, but stretching off to the farthest heights in the background—a city in short which has dethroned Lima, Santiago, Valparaiso, and every other rival, and which the Americans have made the queen of the Pacific, the "glory of the western coast!"

L'École des Robinsons, translated into English under titles like The School for Crusoes or, more commonly, Godfrey Morgan: A Californian Mystery, is, as one would expect from the title, a robinsonade; but while Verne loved a good robinsonade, he was often also amused at the absurdities and implausible coincidences that are common in such tales. In this work, Verne is obviously having fun with the genre by playing up precisely this angle and giving it all a different twist -- one that is somewhat predictable from all the clues, but with layers enough that the reader won't be able to guess the whole secret before the end.

Godfrey Morgan, who loves adventure tales and robinsonades, is the nephew of the immensely rich William W. Kolderup, and is set to marry Kolderup's goddaughter Phina. He wants to marry -- but he's put out at the fact that he hasn't seen the world yet (and perhaps is also getting cold feet), and so decides to take a trip around the world before he actually goes through with it. Little does he know that he will himself be stranded on a desert island (with his comic sidekick Tartlet, his dancing instructor)!

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