Monday, June 10, 2019

Voyages Extraordinaires #46: Le Testament d'un excentrique

A stranger, having arrived in the principal city of Illinois on the morning of April 3, 1897, would have had every right to consider himself as favored by the God of travelers. That day his notebook would have overflowed with curious notes capable of furnishing material for sensationalistic articles. And, assuredly, if he had extended his stay in Chicago for some weeks before and some months after, he would have been able to take part in the passions, palpitations, alternating hope and despair, feverishness, even bewilderment, of that great city, which had lost its self-possession.
[My translation.]

The Noble Game of the Goose (PDF) is one of the most widely popular board games in history. Racing by dice roll on a track of sixty-three squares, players try to land exactly on the end square; certain squares on the track impose special operations -- if you land on a goose square, you automatically advance by the same number that you rolled to land on it: if you land on the death's head, you have to start over; if you land on the prison, you lose a turn; if you land on the bridge, you advance twelve; if you land on the maze, you regress thirty; and so forth. In addition, if you land on a square occupied by another player, you force them out of the space and back to the square whence you came.

It's not at all difficult to see why Verne saw the game as having potential for some of his 'geographical fiction'. Given the choice to use it as the structure of the story, you would need a location that would, first, give a reason for people to play, and, second, be large enough, diverse enough, and modern enough to make it geographically interesting. There is obviously only one real answer: the United States of America, land of crazy millionaires and doing anything for dollars, a country vast in size, modern in infrastructure, and endless in geographical variation.

In Le Testament d'un excentrique, published in 1900 and known in English as Will of an Eccentric, the death of multimillionaire William J. Hypperbone, enthusiast for the Game of the Goose, member of The Eccentric Club, and upstanding citizen of Chicago, Illinois, creates a great sensation. In his will, he proposes a large-scale version of his favorite game, to be called The Noble Game of the United States. Six residents of Chicago are chosen by lottery to play; a mysterious seventh is added by codicil. The game takes place in 1897; there are forty-five states, Utah having just become a state in the previous year. In addition, there is the District of Columbia and five territories (Oklahoma Territory, Indian Territory, New Mexico Territory, Arizona Territory, Alaska). Alaska is left out for convenience -- it's a little too much of a challenge -- but that makes for fifty squares on the board. The rest of the squares are filled out by Illinois, which is the starting and ending point and so takes the role of the goose squares. To land on a square, the player has to check in by a certain day at a particular city and post office in that state or territory; at that post office, they will also at the given time receive, by telegram from Chicago, the results of their next dice roll and thus their next location. The special function squares are in the same location on the US board that they are on the Game of the Goose; it seems that there was some attempt to match the special functions to the locations (e.g., the death's head is Death Valley), but this isn't always explained (e.g., the prison square is St. Louis). The players pay out of their own pockets, and on certain squares they can be fined, which they must pay or forfeit the game, but it's a one in seven chance to win a big prize, sixty million dollars in 1897 money, and if you come in second, you get all of the pot from the fines collected during the game.

Coming near the end of Verne's career, it is not well known; despite taking place in the United States, it was never really marketed to the US. It's a very readable book, although the actual plot is inevitably basic, and the characterization, divided among several characters who only occasionally interact with each other, also ends up being fairly basic. But I've noted before that one of Verne's charms for an American is his depictions of the United States as an exotic country, full of weirdness: Maine, where you can be fined for asking for whiskey; Cleveland, where people get strangely enthusiastic about prize pigs; Wyoming, where women can vote; and, of course, that favorite of nineteenth-century European writers, Utah, with its Mormons. And while not deep, it is a swiftly running tale that never flags.

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