Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #42: Face au drapeau

The carte de visite received that day, June 15, 189—, by the director of the establishment of Healthful House was a very neat one, and simply bore, without escutcheon or coronet, the name:


Below this name, in a corner of the card, the following address was written in lead pencil:

“On board the schooner Ebba, anchored off New-Berne, Pamlico Sound.”

The capital of North Carolina—one of the forty-four states of the Union at this epoch—is the rather important town of Raleigh, which is about one hundred and fifty miles in the interior of the province. It is owing to its central position that this city has become the seat of the State legislature, for there are others that equal and even surpass it in industrial and commercial importance, such as Wilmington, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Edenton, Washington, Salisbury, Tarborough, Halifax, and New-Berne. The latter town is situated on estuary of the Neuse River, which empties itself into Pamlico Sound, a sort of vast maritime lake protected by a natural dyke formed by the isles and islets of the Carolina coast.

Face au drapeau, or Facing the Flag, is not one of Verne's better known works, but it has a great deal to recommend it. It is a tale of mystery and espionage, of piracy and patriotism, of powerful missiles and submarine boats. There are a number of ways, too, in which one can clearly see that Verne is experimenting a bit with his writing -- for instance, while the frame is third-person, much of the tale is first-person from an active narrator who only gradually unravels the mystery in which he finds himself, and as the tale progresses, it shifts from a first-person recent-past narrative (a journal) to a first-person immediate-present narrative (notes taken as things happen). At least as far as I could tell from the English translation, this deliberate narrative shifting is done in a skillful manner that heightens the urgency of the tale as things come to a head.

Thomas Roch is a brilliant inventor with a long string of successes, and he has come up with one of his greatest: the fulgurator, a weapon that could give a nation dominance on land and sea. However, he has become bitter at what he sees as people unfairly taking advantage of his inventions to profit themselves, and at what he regards as a general lack of appreciation, so when he approaches the French government, he demands a very high price, and, what is more, refuses to demonstrate the weapon until he is paid, and stubbornly refuses to see the unreasonableness of this. The French break off negotiations. Feeling betrayed, Roch turns his back on the French flag and offers his invention first to the Germans, who don't think they need the help of a Frenchman, and then to the more practical English, who hear him out but also turn him down. Increasingly sour on the world and emotionally unstable, Roch approaches the even more practical Americans who, recognizing that he is not quite right in the head, seize him and put him in a mental institution, the Healthful House, until he becomes more sane and amenable to negotiation -- an action that probably not accidentally also keeps him from approaching any other governments with the weapon. A French engineer named Simon Hart hears about the situation, and so, under an assumed name, gets himself hired at Healthful House to keep an eye on Roch and make sure that the fulgurator is not used against French interests. But other people have also heard about the situation, and see all too well the potential....

The book, interestingly, led to a lawsuit; Eugène Turpin, the inventor of the explosive melinite, sued Verne for defamation on the ground that the crazy Roch was obviously a representation of Turpin himself (who had been thrown in prison on accusations that he was trying to sell to foreign powers). Turpin lost the lawsuit, in part due to Verne's brilliant lawyer, Raymond Poincaré, who later became President of France, but it was not an unreasonable conclusion. Verne at several points does refer to Turpin's inventions. And while Turpin could not have known it, Roch was indeed inspired by Turpin's case; in his correspondence with his brother Paul, Verne refers to Roch as "le Turpin".

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