Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Verne, Cinq Semaines en ballon (1862)

I'd always thought Verne’s books were published later in the century. But he was a contemporary of Zola and Flaubert. And while an age of engineering, world conquest, and scientific breakthrough is just barely visible in Zola, in Verne it becomes the whole point in Verne.

Cinq Semaines en ballon, published in 1862, recounts a pioneering (fictional) balloon trip across Africa, from Zanzibar to Senegal. At this time, while the coasts of the Africa were being taken over by the French and English, the interior was still beyond their reach. While explorers like Livingstone, Burton, Speke, and others had managed to explore some of the interior, many other explorers died from malaria, sleeping sicknesses and other diseases or at the hands of hostile tribes. The source of the Nile was in question until confirmed by Stanley in the 1870’s. Among the other discoveries by the balloon riders in the novel is the (fictional) confirmation of Speke’s theory that Lake Victoria was the true source.


1. This is a typical romance, a string of adventurous episodes, including breathtaking prospects, curious adventures, and near escapes from hostile man and beast. As with most romances, the incidents could be expanded or contracted or rearranged by the author, with the (somewhat blank) interior map of Africa as the only constraint, as we are pulled from jungle to grassland to desert and back again.

2. At the same time, it is full of anatomical factuality, about the specifics of ballooning (along with some innovations by our hero), about African geography and the history of its exploration. For example, a lot of prose is dedicated to the exact contents of the airship, including the precise amount of weight each person and item provide, along with the necessary ballast required.

3. What suffers is the characters – all rather one-dimensional. The trinity of balloonists is broadly drawn. There is the faithful, humorous, and agile British servant; the obtuse but trustworthy Scottish hunter/man of action; and the brilliant British leader of the expedition, whose knowledge of aeronautics, physics, geography, and ethnography gets them out of many a scrape.

4. The various natives of Africa as mostly viewed from a safe distance; they are portrayed as vicious, bloodthirsty, and/or credulous and simple. There is no real interaction with them, and a typical ugly racism of the time is rife. The sooner teh Europeans suppress these primitive natives, the book strongly implies, the better.

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