Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Voyages Extraordinaires #39: P’tit-Bonhomme

Ireland, which has an area of 31,759 square miles, or 20,326,209 acres, formerly formed a part of the insular tract of land now called the United Kingdom. This we learn from the geologists; but it is history and fact that the islands are now two, and more widely divided by moral discord than by physical barriers. The Irish, who are friends of France, are, as they always have been, enemies of England.

A fair country for tourists is Ireland, but a sad one for the dwellers in it. They cannot fertilise it, and it cannot feed them, especially in some of the northern districts. But although the motherland has no flowing breast to give her children, she is passionately loved by them. They call her by the sweetest of names; she is 'Green Erin',--and indeed her verdure is unequalled--she is 'The Land of Song'; she is 'The Island of Saints'; she is 'The Emerald Gem of the Western World'; she is 'First flower of the earth, and first gem of the sea'. Poor Ireland! She ought to be called 'The Isle of Poverty', for that name has befitted her for many centuries. In 1845 the population of 'the most distressful country that ever yet was seen' reached its highest point, 8,295,061; in 1891 when the last Census was taken, it had fallen to 4,706,162, and the terrible preponderance of indigence is maintained at the old figures, 3 to 8.

[Jules Verne, The Extraordinary Adventures of Foundling Mick, Royal Irish Academy (Dublin: 2008), pp. 1-2.]

The English title has always been Foundling Mick, but the French is P'tit-Bonhomme; we never learn the title character's originally given name. He is known by everyone as P'tit-Bonhomme, and such is his name to us. Born into extraordinary poverty, an orphan in rags having no options, abused and misused by those around him, P'tit-Bonhomme nonetheless is an irrepressible soul. His nickname/name is fitting, because he has an abhorrence of begging, and has a precocious sense of appropriate behavior. Because he has a natural talent for recordkeeping, and a firm willingness to work, he will go far, and by the end of the story, still a teenager, he will have risen from impoverished orphanhood to become a business-owner beginning to be wealthy and drawing around himself a sort of family.

The tale is unusually optimistic for Verne. It reminds me in a way of a robinsonade; P'tit-Bonhomme is starting not from a deserted island but from a destitute position, and friendship and hard work are the primary keys to his success rather than encyclopedic knowledge, but in a sense, P'tit-Bonhomme is concerned with the same sort of civilization-building. Civilization, after all, is a thing one is always building.

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