Monday, October 29, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #38: Claudius Bombarnac

Special Correspondent,
“Twentieth Century.”
Tiflis, Transcaucasia.

Such is the address of the telegram I found on the 13th of May when I arrived at Tiflis.

This is what the telegram said:

“As the matters in hand will terminate on the 15th instant Claudius Bombarnac will repair to Uzun Ada, a port on the east coast of the Caspian. There he will take the train by the direct Grand Transasiatic between the European frontier and the capital of the Celestial Empire. He will transmit his impressions in the way of news, interviewing remarkable people on the road, and report the most trivial incidents by letter or telegram as necessity dictates. The Twentieth Century trusts to the zeal, intelligence, activity and tact of its correspondent, who can draw on its bankers to any extent he may deem necessary.”

Verne usually does not have punchy beginnings, but he gets to the point here: Claudius Bombarnac, a special correspondent for the Twentieth Century is asked by his paper to do a people-oriented feature on the Grand Transasiatic from the Caspian Sea to Pekin (Beijing). Doing so, he meets a number of people from all over the world. He worries, though, that he might not find sufficiently exciting material to keep his readers interested. But he needn't worry; there is the mystery of the man in the crate, and a new armed car gets added to the train, purportedly carrying a Mandarin's coffin to Pekin, and it becomes clear enough that bandits are out to seize the train. Not everything is what it seems, and, among the odd people on the train it is harder than usual for a special correspondent to figure out what is real and what is not.

Claudius Bombarnac, also known in English as The Adventures of a Special Correspondent, has a few passing callbacks to other works by Verne. One of the people on the train is trying to beat the world record for going around the world, which allows Verne to give some nice tribute to people who tried to do a trip like that in Around the World in Eight Days -- Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Bisland, and George Francis Train all get special mention. In addition, the stage version of Michel Strogoff is mentioned in passing. The characters on the train often have definite similarities to characters in other Verne works, so some have seen this as Verne poking light fun at some of his more distinctive creations.

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