Monday, August 06, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #25: L'Étoile du sud

"Go on; I am listening."

"I have the honour to ask you for your daughter's hand."

"Alice?"

"Yes. My request seems to surprise you. Perhaps you will forgive me if I have some difficulty in understanding why it appears so strange. I am twenty-six years old ; my name is Victor Cyprien; I am a mining engineer, and left the Polytechnic as second on the list. My family is honest and respected, if it is not rich. The French consul at Capetown can answer any questions about me you are likely to ask, and my friend Pharamond Barthes, the explorer, whom you—like everybody else in Griqualand— know right well, can add his testimony. I am here on a scientific mission in the name of the Academy of Sciences and the French Government. Last year I gained the Houdart prize at the Institute for my researches on the chemistry of the volcanic rocks of Auvergne. My paper on the diamantiferous basin of the Vaal, which is nearly finished, is sure of a good reception from the scientific world. When I started on my mission I was appointed Assistant. Professor at the Paris School of Mines, and I have already engaged my rooms on the third floor at No. 104 of the Rue Université. My appointments will, during the first year, bring me in two hundred pounds. That is hardly an El Dorado, I know, but with my private work I can nearly double it. My wants being few, I have enough to be happy on. And so, Mr. Watkins, I have the honour to ask you for your daughter's hand."

From the firm, decided tone of this little speech it was easy to see that Cyprien was accustomed to go straight to the point in what he did, and to speak his mind freely.

L'Étoile du sud (The Star of the South, often titled in English The Vanished Diamond, is actually a collaborative effort, in the sense that the original draft was a manuscript by Paschal Grousset and this was reworked by Verne. As far as I have been able to discover, however, we do not know exactly how much is Grousset and how much is Verne. The tale is, however, Verne-like in character, having many features in common with other tales by Verne (it is heavily dominated by geography, in this case of South Africa; it makes use of a scientific idea, chemical synthesis of diamonds, in a typically Vernean way; a carefully planned means for saving the heroes; and so forth). Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to take this work in its final form to be largely due to Verne.

Cyprien Méré, or Victor Cyprian, which the English translations often substitute, is, as he says to Mr. Watkins in the opening paragraph, a mining engineer who wishes to marry the daughter of a wealthy South African landowner. Before he will be allowed to do so, however, he must make his fortune, and so he sets out to become wealthy by way of diamonds, first by staking part of a claim and trying to find diamonds that way, and then, when doesn't seem to be panning out, by trying to synthesize them. (The history of diamond synthesis is a complicated one; there were claims of having succeeded at it in 1879, a few years before this book was published, and that claim seems to have been true, but attempts to replicate only rarely succeeded.) His experiment breaks, but in the wreckage of it, he discovers a very large diamond. The diamond vanishes however, and at the same time a black man, Mataki, who has been helping Méré, also vanishes. Méré thinks it very unlikely that Mataki has stolen the diamond -- but if he does not discover how the diamond disappeared, Mataki may hang for theft, and without the diamond Méré may never have a chance to marry the woman he loves.

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