Monday, July 20, 2020

Martin Paz by Jules Verne

Romantic thriller in colonial Peru
Martin Paz, a novella by Jules Verne, was originally published in 1852 as a serial in the French literary magazine Musée des familles. Verne was only 24 years old at the time of publication, and this story predates the science fiction novels for which he is best known. The one element that unites Verne’s prolific body of work, sci-fi or not, is an adventurous love for travel and exploration, often to exotic lands. Here he takes the reader to Peru in a story set during the 1820s. Verne begins by explaining the social stratification of colonial Lima. The governing Spaniards enjoy a domineering position at the highest level of social status. Below them are the mestizos, those of mixed European and Indigenous heritage. At the bottom of the social ladder lie the Indigenous peoples of South America, referred to throughout the book as Indians. Under this rigid system, no matter how high one might rise within his own class, he was forced to suffer the condescension and abuse of those among the higher levels of the racial hierarchy.

Verne adds an interesting twist by introducing a Jewish family into the story. Though looked down upon as a stranger and outcast who fits into none of the above classes, a wealthy and successful Jewish businessman named Samuel is often sought after as a moneylender, and his riches grant him a certain degree of power in Limanian society. Samuel arranges to marry his beautiful daughter Sarah to a wealthy mestizo named André Certa, who has more affection for the family’s wealth than for the girl herself. Certa comes to suspect that an Indian named Martin Paz has eyes for his betrothed, and he fears the feeling may be mutual. One evening Sarah and Martin, she on her balcony and he in the alley below, share an emotional moment. Certa comes upon the scene and draws his sword. In the ensuing fight, Martin wounds Certa, and then must flee. When an Indian harms a mestizo, who drew first is irrelevant. If captured, Martin faces certain execution.

In Martin Paz, Verne overtly displays a respect and sympathy for Indigenous Americans. Martin is clearly the noblest character in the book, and the Indians in general, though not portrayed as saints, are depicted as freedom fighters valiantly struggling for independence from oppressive Spanish rule. Verne’s depiction of the Jewish characters is a little more problematic, however, as Samuel is not portrayed entirely positively, but Verne never stoops to anti-Semitism. If anything, he could be accused of being anti-Spanish.

In style and substance, this early work by Verne could pass for an adventure by Alexandre Dumas, one with enough melodrama and romance to be adapted into an opera. As in the novels of Dumas, the plot threads of multiple characters are braided together throughout the narrative, and all are tied neatly together in the end. So much happens so fast in this novella that it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly what’s going on, though some of the blame for that may fall upon the English translator. In the interest of establishing his setting with verisimilitude, Verne also loads his prose with Spanish terms and Peruvian colloquialisms that hinder the momentum of the action. Verne has clearly done diligent research on Peru, and he vividly brings the setting and time period to life for the reader. This is by no means a realistic work of historical fiction, however, as the plot takes contrived and theatrical turns that defy belief. In the end, Verne delivers an entertaining tour of Lima and the surrounding countryside, but Martin Paz leaves the reader wishing that a stronger, more true-to-life story had taken place there.

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