Sunday, July 19, 2020

Voyages Extraordinaires #52: Un drame en Livonie

The man was alone in the night. He passed like a wolf between the blocks of ice piled up by the chill of a long winter. His lined trousers, his "khalot", a sort of rough cafetan in cow's hair, his cap with folded down ear flaps, only imperfectly defended him from the harsh winds. Painful cracks split his lips and his hands. The edge of his fingernail gripped the tip of his finger. He was traveling through deep darkness, under a low sky whose clouds threatened to turn to snow; it was already the first days of April, but it was at the high latitude of the fifty-eight degrees.

He refused to stop. After a halt, perhaps he would have been unable to resume walking.

Around eleven in the evening, he stopped, however. It wasn't because his legs were failing him, nor because he was short of breath, nor because he was succumbing to fatigue. His physical energy was equal to his moral energy. And, in a loud voice, with an inexpressible accent of patriotism:

"Finally ... the border ... he cried, the Livonian border ... the country's border!"

(My rough translation.) Un drame en Livonie (in English translation, A Drama in Livonia) is based loosely on the Dreyfus Affair. The Baltic state of Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia) is at the border of the Russian Empire, existing in a territory that has long been contested by the powers on either side. Because of this, it is heavily split in two directions, one German and one Slavic. To try to solidify the border, the Russian Empire is subjecting Livonia to a process of forced Russification, and, as one might expect, the tensions are very high. Things boil over when a promising young bank boy, Poch, is murdered at an inn while escorting a significant sum of money to the bank. Dimitri Nicolef, a major voice for the pro-Slavic community in Riga, is at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he is accused of the murder. The accusation is amplified by the Johausens, the powerful banking family on the pro-German side of the divide, and as word spreads, so does mob anger. And what can a professor with money problems do when evidence, wealth, and mob are against him? Nothing at all.

Since Verne was publishing in a family-friendly periodical, he has to tie this all up in a way that makes it less dark than the direction it is heading suggests. Nonetheless, vindication does not always arrive swiftly enough to save the innocent.