Friday, May 03, 2019

Voyages Extraordinaires #26: L'Archipel en feu

On October 18, 1827, at about five in the evening, a little ship from the Levant grasped at the wind, trying to reach the port of Vitylo, at the entrance of the gulf of Coron, by nightfall.

This port, the ancient Oetylos of Homer, is situated in one of the three deep indentations that cut out of the Ionian and Aegean sea that plane-tree leaf to which southern Greece has very aptly been compared. Upon this leaf is found the ancient Peloponnesus, the Morea of modern geography. The first of these serrations, in the west, is the gulf of Coron, opening between Messenia and Magne; the second is the gulf of Marathon, which largely sweeps the coast of severe Laconia; the third is the gulf of Nafplion, whose waters separate Laconia from Argolis.

L'Archipel en feu, my (rough) translation. Greece is under the Ottomon Empire and is in revolt, the whole territory of Greece burning with the flames of revolution. At the point the story opens, it has been in a state of war for about six years. The isles of Greece are in chaos as the waters are filled with enemy vessels and with opportunistic pirates. One of these pirates, Nicholas Starkos, has been actively working with the Turks; his own mother has disowned him. Looking to further his position, Starkos sets his eyes on the daughter of a wealthy banker, Hadjine Elizundo, who is engaged to the French naval officer, Henry d'Albaret, who has joined the Greek fight. Starkos attempts to blackmail Hadjine's father into agreeing: Hadjine's father has a very terrible secret in his past. While Starkos's plan fails, Hadjine's discovery of the secret leads her to conclude that she is unworthy of such a man as Henry. Though upset at this turn of events, Henry has to head out on a naval expedition to hunt down the alleged leader of the pirates, Sacratif; his mission will lead him to a showdown with pirates and, of course, the solution that will make possible his marriage with Hadjine.

Verne does a very good job in the first half of the book at conveying the chaos and complexity of the revolution and the piracy problem throughout the Greek islands. Ironically, that makes it somewhat difficult to get through; reading it in the original French rather than in English, it took me forever to navigate even the basic outlines. But things pick up once we start getting more of Henry, and Nicholas Starkos is a very well-drawn villain. Most of Verne's villains have a comic edge to them, a bit of caricature or buffoonery or haplessnes, but Starkos is very realistic and very unlikable, one of Verne's best villains, I think.

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