Thursday, August 16, 2007

Books: Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I remember reading The Mysterious Island when I was ten or eleven years old (I know, I know; other children spent Saturdays doing normal things like playing little league with other children their age, and I was at the library with my dad, and, having exhausted the children/young adults section, had moved on, at his recommendation, to the adult SciFi/Adventure shelves) and absolutely loving it. I don't remember it at all, except for a particular tonality, and I think I will have to read it again. Now that I've read Around the World in Eighty Days (with a bit more cognizance, I think, than I had back in 1992), I think I will have to read a lot more Jules Verne. He's great.

AtW is a slim, quickly-paced volume packed with action and adventure. Okay. Well, if you're accustomed to reading books written prior to the Twentieth Century, it's packed with action and adventure. If you read the Bourne books, it might be a bit dull. If you don't read books, but you watch the Bourne movies, it's certain to be quite dull. But I don't read those books, and I haven't seen those movies (although I do like a bit of Die Hard now and then), so I found it to be quite the thrilling page turner.

The story is that of one Phileas Fogg (was there ever a better named character, even in a Pynchon novel?), an anal-retentive sort of Englishman who, at his London club one night, remarks to his friends over an article in the paper that a trip around the entire world can now be made in eighty days. A small quibble ensues over whether or not it is actually possible, and, perhaps because he has little else to entertain him (no family, no job, no passion other than to be certain that the clocks in his home are all synchronized, and that his servant brings his breakfast of tea and toast at twenty-three minutes past eight), Fogg places a bet for £20,000, or exactly half of his entire fortune. He has hired a new servant that very morning, a Frenchman named Passepartout, because his old servant brought his shaving water at 84˚F instead of 86˚F. Imagine Passepartout's surprise when his master comes home from the club hours ahead of schedule and asks him to pack a carpet bag, as they are going on a journey around the world.

They set off and indeed traverse the entire world, by such standard means as train and steamer, and some more odd methods, as they race to beat the clock, including sailboat, elephant, and a sort of sleigh with sails that glides across the windswept prairie. Along the way, they are pursued by a detective, one Monsieur Fix, who is certain that Fogg is the culprit of a recent bank robbery in London (committed, in fact, the very day Fogg left in such haste). Fix is certain that Fogg is planning to escape, and we, knowing that Fogg is innocent, and hoping that he will win his wager, pray that Fix will not receive his warrant for arrest in time, as he chases Fogg through the colonies of Bombay, Calcutta, and Hong Kong. We breathe a sigh of relief as they make it to Yokohama, then San Francisco, then New York; Fix's warrant is no good in these foreign lands without a clumsy extradition.

Along the way, there are hair-raising adventures. In Bombay, Fogg and Passepartout are thrown in jail because the servant entered a temple without removing his shoes. Fogg pays an exorbitant bail in order to get them back on the road. Riding an elephant between Bombay and Calcutta, the party encounters a suttee: a beautiful young woman, drugged, is being taken to her death on her husband's funeral pyre. Fogg, Passapartout, Fix (who has joined their party under a false identity), and their guide decide to save her, and after quite a bit of excitement, she joins their party. Later, in Hong Kong, Fix takes Passapartout to an Opium bar, hoping to delay the party in the English territory in time for his warrant to arrive; luckily, he makes it to Yokohama and reunites with his party. In San Francisco, a band of Indians attacks their train and a two-way slaughter ensues, in which Passepartout is taken captive and Fogg must lead a band of local men to rescue him. All of these adventures serve to delay the journey, and we worry whether Fogg will indeed win his wager.

Fix, however, means trouble; as soon as the party lands on British soil (in Liverpool), Fix produces his warrant and arrests Fogg. After a few hours, they find out that the actual robber has been caught, and Fogg is free to finish his journey, but the damage has been done; he misses his train to London by five minutes, and loses the wager. He returns home dejectedly, and begins to put his affairs in order; he has lost half his fortune in the wager, and nearly all of the other half in making the journey. He will not be able to give any money to the beautiful Aouda he rescued from India, and he will not be able to maintain his lifestyle any longer. The next day, Passepartout rushes home and insists that his master leave immediately for his club; it is Saturday, not Sunday, and he has won the wager thanks to the International Date Line! Thanks to this boon, Fogg's fortune is restored, and he and Aouda marry.

The story is plenty old-fashioned, but I like it anyway. A happy ending isn't so bad, now and then.

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