Saturday, March 30, 2019

Jules Verne, Keraban the Inflexible; The Steam House


Opening Passages: From Keraban the Inflexible:

At six o'clock on the evening of the 16th of August, in a certain year which need not be particularly specified, the quay of Top-Hané in Constantinople, usually so crowded and full of life and bustle, was silent — almost deserted. The view from this place over the Bosphorus was certainly a very charming one, but life was wanting to give it its full effect. Very few strangers were visible that time, and they were hurrying on their way to Pera. The narrow, dirty, and dog-infested streets which led to what may be termed the European quarters, were almost free from the presence of the representatives of Western civilization. Pera is more especially affected as a residence by the Franks, whose white stone mansions contrast vividly with the dark cypress groves upon the hill.

From The Steam House:

Reward of two thousand pounds will be paid to any one who will deliver up, dead or alive, one of the prime movers of the Sepoy revolt, at present known to be in the Bombay presidency, the Nabob Dandou Pant, commonly called

Such was the fragmentary notice read by the inhabitants of Aurungabad, on the evening of the 6th of March, 1867. A copy of the placard had been recently affixed to the wall of a lonely and ruined bungalow on the banks of the Doudhma, and already the corner of the paper bearing the second name — a name execrated by some, secretly admired by others — was gone.

Summary: The Steam House occurs in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny, and the British and the Indians are mired in a cycle of ever-increasing violence and retaliation, as both sides struggle to deal with atrocities, both their own and those on the other side. The most significant of these for this tale is the Cawnpore Massacre, in which Nana Sahib had an unusually impressive victory against the British, but one marked by ruthlessness, as many British died, and women and children were thrown into a well to die. Among these women and children was Laura Munro, the wife of Colonel Munro, who would be a significant contributor to the British response, which will lead to Nana Sahib going into hiding. Needless to say, Colonel Munro and Nana Sahib have a deep-seated hatred for each other, and both itch for the chance to get their revenge.

The Steam House arises in part as an attempt by Colonel Munro's friends to get him out of his shell. They hit on the idea of a tour of India; and Banks, the engineer, has the perfect way to take it, if Colonel Munro is willing to contribute to it. An Indian rajah had a plan for a steam-powered mechanical elephant that could draw a small train of palaces behind it. He had hired Banks to realize his dream, but died before Banks could solve all the engineering problems involved. However, they did get solved, so the friends will take their tour in two houses-on-wheels drawn by the amazing mechanical elephant. Going along with Munro and Banks will be Maucler (the French narrator), Captain Hood, and the servants -- Sergeant McNeil, Storr the engine-driver, Kâlouth the fire-man for the engine, Goûmi the Gurkha, Fox who is Captain Hood's valet, and Monsieur Parazard the black French chef, as well as two hunting dogs. The two houses drawn by the elephant are practically small palaces, so everybody is certainly going to be touring in style. They will see many of the sacred sites of India, starting out from Calcutta and heading to the Himalayas, but there are many other things that they will discover. Some of these scenes are very nicely done -- the descriptions of the tiger hunts, or of the herd of elephants that does not know what to make of their machine-elephant, or the wager with the prince that their mechanical elephant was stronger than three flesh-and-blood elephants combined. There is also the mystery of the madwoman traveling the countryside, known only by the populace as the Roving Flame.

But Munro was convinced to go on the tour for reasons of his own, due to the dark days of Cawnpore, and Nana Sahib is at large, building up a new rebellion, and has heard that Munro has left Calcutta. The two inevitably will collide. I think this is perhaps the weakest part of the book; the events are interesting, but it's almost as if we have two different stories that just happen to share a few episodes. All in all, though, it's a rousing tale, and remarkably even-handed -- Verne neither excuses the atrocities of either side nor looks away from them, although, of course, all of his information for both sides is at second-hand, so should be taken with a grain of salt.

Kéraban the Inflexible is a very different story; The Steam House is sensational and melodramatic, but Kéraban is a comic tale. Kéraban's obstinacy in refusing to pay the tiny strait-crossing tax of ten paras, leading him to take a journey around the entire Black Sea just to get the short distance across the Bosphorus is played for all the absurdity it is, as is Van Mitten's nonconfrontational compliance in the face of a much more assertive personality. But Kéraban's obstinacy does win out, and everybody worthy of a happy ending has one, including Kéraban himself, who succeeds, twice, in not paying the tax of ten paras, which is about 1/4 of a piastre, and manages to pull off this astounding triumph over the intrusions of government at a cost of a mere 802,000 piastres and all sorts of crazy adventures. Of course, he will also later for convenience buy the tax out from the government -- essentially pay the government everything they expect to make from the tax -- simply so he doesn't have to keep not paying it, and who knows how much that was, but that is Kéraban for you: you can't force him to do anything, but freely he might very well do anything.

Favorite Passages: From Keraban the Inflexible:

"Well, you see, I have crossed without paying," said Kéraban to the chief of the police. "Yes, without paying--at least only two thousand piastres for my place in the barrow and the eight hundred thousand expended in going round the Black Sea."

"I congratulate you with all my heart," replied the officer, who could only bow to this unparalleled obstinacy.

From The Steam House, it's hard to beat the first description of the Steam House itself:

At sunrise a strange and most remarkable equipage had been seen to issue from the suburbs of the Indian capital, attended by a dense crowd of people drawn by curiosity to watch its departure.

First, and apparently drawing the caravan, came a gigantic elephant. The monstrous animal, twenty feet in height, and thirty in length, advanced deliberately, steadily, and with a certain mystery of movement which struck the gazer with a thrill of awe. His trunk, curved like a cornucopia, was uplifted high in the air. His gilded tusks, projecting from behind the massive jaws, resembled a pair of huge scythes. On his back was a highly ornamented howdah, which looked like a tower surmounted, in Indian style, by a dome-shaped roof and furnished with lens-shaped glasses to serve for windows.

This elephant drew after him a train consisting of two enormous cars, or actual houses, moving bungalows in fact, each mounted on four wheels. The wheels, which, were prodigiously strong, were carved, or rather sculptured in every part. Their lowest portion only could be seen, as they moved inside a sort of case, like a paddle-box, which concealed the enormous locomotive apparatus. A flexible gangway connected the two carriages.

Recommendation: Both Recommended, if you can find them.

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