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Submarine dreams: Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

The classic sci-fi novel is more than a ripping yarn – it anticipated the ecology movement and shaped the French avant-garde.

© Jillian Tamaki, 2014

I was introduced to Jules Verne at Christmas 1948 when my parents gave me a beautifully illustrated and cleverly abridged copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. I loved this book, and read it again and again. It inspired in me a passion for stories of underwater adventures, even more thrilling to me than travels in space and moon landings. I continue to be enthralled by submarine photography, by tales of giant squid and underground lakes, by shipwrecks and desperate voyages. The vast underwater world is full of wonders, and we have hardly begun to explore them. The sense of excitement communicated by Verne more than half a century ago is with me still.

Verne was impassioned by travel, by exploration, by motion, by all means of transportation and locomotion. The first of what came to be grouped together as his Voyages extraordinaires was Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), which, after some years of struggle, launched his career as a commercially successful writer. These novels explored the outer realms of scientific possibility, and were backed up with extensive research and erudite displays of not always wholly trustworthy statistics. The plausible appearance of scientific verisimilitude enabled his enterprising and well-connected publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, to market Verne’s works not only as romantic adventures but also as educational and instructive works.

Travel by balloon, a theme to which Verne returned several times, was swiftly followed by journeys to the centre of the earth, to the moon, to underground cities, to mysterious volcanic islands, to the Arctic and to the Antarctic, and even to complicated and competitive wager-driven journeys round the United States by train, bicycle, motor car, schooner and horse. Movement itself entranced him, and so did both natural and man-made wonders. He anticipated the restless mass tourism and relentless appetite for sightseeing of the 20th century, and his name appears on the title page of one of the earliest satires of package holiday travel, the posthumously published L’Agence Thompson et Cie (1907), though this was in fact largely written by his son, Michel.

But his greatest and most profound love was, arguably, for the sea, and all that was on it, in it and under it. He was born in the French town of Nantes, on the Loire, some 30 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, and he is said to have tried to run away to sea as a boy. He kept a succession of yachts, all named Saint-Michel, and he greatly enjoyed sailing and long sea voyages. He first described an underwater boat in the 1850s and we know that he was extremely excited when he hit upon the concept of his submarine novel, the subject matter of which was commended to him by an admirer, the novelist George Sand. Verne boasted to Hetzel that it would be unlike anything anyone had ever written before – it would be “superb, yes superb!” – and composed some of Twenty Thousand Leagues (1870) while sailing in his Saint-Michel, where everything he saw prompted new ideas and images.

The starting point of the adventure is stunningly simple: we embark, with our scholarly narrator Dr Aronnax and his two carefully selected comrades, on a chase after a vast and dangerous beast that is causing havoc to the world’s shipping. This monster may or may not be a narwhal, a legendary and quasi-mythological sea creature with a single horn like a unicorn’s. At once we are in the realm of the epic, and are reminded of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick. The voyagers discover not a narwhal, but the even more extraordinary Nautilus.

The characterisation of the main players – the narrator Pierre Aronnax, a lecturer at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, explorer and author of “a two-volume in-quarto work entitled The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps”; his valet, the ever-faithful, classification-obsessed Conseil; and the hawk-eyed French Canadian harpooner Ned Land (a name of awesome monosyllabic resonance in a novel of the sea) – is of a stark but effective simplicity. These three representative mortals, cooped up together in the midst of almost limitless space, live out their personal dramas in tense and close confinement: as Richard Holmes, in his history of balloon travel Falling Upwards (2013), points out, in Verne’s work the balloon basket, the moon rocket or the submarine provide the “ideal enclosed space in which to stage a drama, and draw out contrasting characters under pressure”.

Yet, despite their enclosure, they have a magnificent view of the spectacle of the underwater world. Verne’s pleasure in describing the forests of kelp, the shoals of fish, the nesting turtles and the tentacles, beak and triple heart of the giant squid is infectious. Who could resist “blue dolphinfish picked out in gold and silver; parrot fish, true oceanic rainbows competing in colour with the most beautiful birds of the Tropics”, or “golden Pomacanthus . . . decked out in emerald strips and clothed in velvet and silk, like lords out of Veronese’s paintings”?

Captain Nemo, the commander of the Nautilus and its mysterious polyglot crew, is a more complex figure than his three hostages; a Romantic, Byronic exile of perplexing nationality and (in this novel) obscure motivation. Cultured, tragic, ruthless, wealthy, he is at war with humanity, yet compassionate to the oppressed and the poor. He is anti-imperial, anti-colonial and republican at heart. We know that Hetzel steered Verne away from his politically sensitive conception of Nemo as a Polish nobleman seeking revenge against Russian tyranny, a character who might have prefigured some of Joseph Conrad’s later protagonists. Hetzel, by this censoring pressure, may thus have introduced some contradictions into Verne’s conception of his lonely ruler of the oceans, but Nemo nevertheless emerges as one of the great heroes, or anti-heroes, of fiction. When I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues as a child I had no idea that he would reappear a few years later as an agent of providence in Verne’s 1874 novel of shipwreck (or balloon-wreck) The Mysterious Island. I was astonished to meet him again, and to learn the explanations of his tragic past and ultimate fate.

On the surface, Twenty Thousand Leagues is an action-packed tale of adventure and exploration, precursor to and inspiration for Boy’s Own classics by British writers such as Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and John Buchan. In England Verne has been considered mainly a supreme storyteller. The very word “league” (both in English and in its French version) has a ring of the yarn or the tall story. Verne’s inventiveness of plot and boldness of characterisation are matched by a pleasure in daily details that bring his fantasies to life; he is particularly good, as perhaps a French writer should be, on food. Nemo is a gourmet, and Aronnax’s pleasure in the ingeniously contrived delicacies with which he is presented is delightfully portrayed: so is Ned Land’s hunger to get his teeth into a chop. The giraffe steaks and eland barbecues of Rider Haggard and the ham rolls, hard-boiled eggs and ginger beer of Enid Blyton pale in comparison to Captain Nemo’s fillets of emperor fish, soup of turtle, livers of dolphin and anemone jam. Ashore, Ned Land creates a feast of wood pigeons, wild boar, “rabbit kangaroos”, breadfruit and mangoes, a point at which Aronnax confesses that he has “become exactly like the Canadian. Here am I, in ecstasy at freshly grilled pork!”

Verne does, however, show that he recognises the dangers of hunting, and of growing threats to species and to the planet. Although great numbers of creatures are slaughtered and devoured in the course of the book, Verne and Aronnax tend to deplore needless killing. We now reread 19th-century classics for early signs of awareness of ecology and environment and entropy, and we can find them in the criticisms of the bloodthirstiness of Ned, and in the information that the poor dugong and the great emerald bird of paradise have been hunted almost to extinction. Conseil speaks for the future when he reflects that, if the dugong is the last of its line, it should be spared in the interests of science.

The French have taken Verne’s work in general more seriously than the Anglo-Saxon literary establishment, seeing beyond the storyteller. Although it has been argued that he was never truly admitted to the canon, he was much admired by writers as different and as eminent as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. The symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud was directly inspired by Twenty Thousand Leagues. “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”, 1871), his best-known poem, owes some of its tumultuous, exotic imagery to Verne, and perhaps also a little of its world-weary melodramatic melancholy. As human beings, Verne and Rimbaud inhabited different universes; as writers, they meet, reminding us that, although Verne never overstresses the significance of the great subconscious pull of the oceans, he is aware of their chaotic depths and currents.

A new generation of avant-garde Continental writers rediscovered Jules Verne in the 1960s and he became one of the cult heroes of the experimental group known as Oulipo, which included Raymond Queneau (1903-76), Italo Calvino (1923-85) and Georges Perec (1936-82). They investigated the connections between mathematics and language, enjoyed verbal conundrums and constraints, and stressed the playful, formal, puzzle-engendering aspects of literature, enlisting Verne as a writer who had explored in fiction the deployment of bets, wagers, challenges, inventions and statistics. Perhaps the most successful product of this movement is in a sense a direct homage to Twenty Thousand Leagues: Perec’s remarkable novel Life: a User’s Manual (1978). It is based on the conceit of an immensely wealthy and immensely bored man called Bartlebooth, who is obsessed both by harbours and by jigsaws, and who has devised an elaborate plan of occupying the first half of his life by sailing the world with his faithful valet to paint harbours. These paintings will be returned to Paris, where they will be made into wooden jigsaws, which he will spend the second half of his life constructing, and then destroying. This is a parody of Nemo’s restless circumnavigation of the globe; the novel is full of references to Verne, and to Verne’s predecessor in the creation of the myth of the obsessed oceanic pursuit, Herman Melville. Perec, like Verne, was fascinated by lists, by the multiplication and classification of phenomena, and he wrote to one of his readers that Verne liberated his imagination “to rediscover the archetypes of the adventure story – multiple and mysterious births, filiations, inheritances, aquatic monsters, curses”.

Jules Verne was buried in Amiens in March 1905, and his grave is marked by an extraordinarily dramatic sculpture, showing him bursting forth from his tomb and pointing upwards towards the heavens. The sculpture is called Vers l’immortalité et l’éternelle jeunesse (“towards immortality and eternal youth”). Verne is the saint of travel agents and the master of the travelogue, as well as the unwitting prophet of the surreal cruise liners of the 21st century. Despite parody and plagiarism and commercial exploitation, the haunting spirit of Nemo and his Nautilus sails on. 

A version of this essay appears in a new edition of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas” (translation by William Butcher, illustrations by Jillian Tamaki) published by the Folio Society (£36.95)

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge