Monday, February 11, 2013

Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne

An espionage thriller set in czarist Siberia
Unlike the books for which Jules Verne is famous, Michael Strogoff, first published in 1876, is not a visionary science fiction novel but a classic romantic adventure. The title character is a courier for the Czar of Russia. A Tartar rebellion has arisen in Siberia, cutting off telegraph communication to much of the eastern frontier and leaving the Czar’s brother, the Grand Duke, isolated in the eastern city of Irkutsk. The Czar commissions Michael to travel to Irkutsk to deliver a message of vital importance. The journey of over 2,500 miles will take him through territory occupied by the Tartar hordes, therefore he must conceal his identity by masquerading as a merchant. Soon after his departure he meets a young woman who is traveling alone to Irkutsk to reunite with her father, a political exile. Out of a gentlemanly concern for the young lady, and partly to reinforce his cover, Michael suggests to her that they make the journey together as brother and sister. Together the two travelers, Michael and Nadia, embark on an epic adventure fraught with peril.

The year of the tale is unspecified, yet one can assume it was intended to take place around the time it was written. The Tartar rebellion described in the story is entirely fictional. Nevertheless, Verne puts a great deal of effort into verisimilitude by providing detailed depictions of Russia and Siberia. He minutely describes every region and town along the road—its topography, its citizenry, its soil and vegetation, and its main exports. Far from becoming tedious, this National Geographic-like attention to detail really elevates this adventure above others of its genre by vibrantly bringing this remote and exotic country to life. It seems obvious to the reader that Verne has traveled this road, all the while taking copious notes of the sights and sounds of his journey, yet Wikipedia states that he never actually travelled there, and his information comes entirely from second-hand research.

The setting and the epic tone of the story call to mind the great Polish historical trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz, which largely takes place on the Ukrainian steppe. As Michael navigates through enemy territory, the book also reads as a sort of 19th-century James Bond story. In keeping with his times, however, Strogoff is much more of a Boy Scout than Bond. At times the saintliness of Michael and Nadia becomes a bit cloying, and Michael’s relentlessly noble and virtuous nature comes across as too superhuman. The story is a little predictable at first, not in an unsatisfying way, but in the way that most Hollywood adventure stories are predictable. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, something happens that I did not see coming at all. This unexpected event brings a truly original slant to the story and really separates this tale from countless other adventure narratives. At certain points in the book things take place that defy believability, but this is Jules Verne after all; it ain’t Tolstoy. These transgressions are to be forgiven once things are wrapped up in the final chapter, and all is explained to the reader’s satisfaction.

My previous experience with Jules Verne consists solely of reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Like most readers, I suspect, I had no idea that Verne wrote this kind of romantic historical adventure story. Now that I know, I plan to seek out more of his writings. Michael Strogoff is not a masterpiece, but it is a solid, enjoyable read for enthusiasts of classic adventure fiction.

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