Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon by Jules Verne

South American adventure with cryptography
Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon
, a novel by Jules Verne, is the story of an adventurous cross-continental journey down the length of the world’s mightiest river. This was the 21st novel of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires (Extraordinary Voyages or Amazing Journeys), a series that includes Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Mysterious Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and at least 50 other books. Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon was first published in French in 1881 under the title of La Jangada, which is the name of the type of raft used in the book. The novel has also been published in English under the title of The Giant Raft.

Brazilian-born Joam Garral is the proprietor of a fazenda (plantation) in Peru, near the headwaters of the Amazon. A successful and prosperous farmer, he rarely leaves the vicinity of his estate. When his daughter Minha becomes betrothed to family friend Manoel Valdez, however, it is decided that the wedding will be held in Manoel’s hometown of Belém, a coastal city on the far side of the South American continent. Joam Garral orders a raft built for the occasion. In typical Verne fashion, the craft is fantastical in its proportions: a thousand feet long by sixty feet wide, requiring the leveling of an entire forest, and equipped with quarters for around a hundred passengers. While the family prepares for this intrepid journey, a mysterious shady figure from Joam Garral’s past is seeking him out, which can only mean trouble for the Garral family.

The novel opens with a paragraph written in code, and cryptography plays a major part in the plot. Verne was obviously influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Gold Bug,” which he mentions in the narrative. Building upon Poe’s idea, Verne makes his cipher even harder to solve. The first half of the novel is mostly just Verne describing the wonders of the Amazon: its flora, fauna, topography, and the enormous amount of water that passes between its banks. The second half of the novel focuses on a crime/mystery story, the resolution of which depends on the solving of the mysterious code.

Verne may be primarily known these days as a science fiction writer, but like many of his Voyages Extraordinaires this novel is more geo-fi (geography fiction) than sci-fi. Verne’s main purpose is to introduce the reader to an exotic location and elaborate upon that region’s people, politics, history, geology, zoology, botany, and ethnography. The more interested you are in this part of the world, the more you’ll like this book, which is perhaps why I enjoyed this novel more than some of Verne’s arctic adventures like The Fur Country and An Antarctic Mystery. One commendable aspect of Verne’s writing is that all the characters in the novel are native to the region, either Latinos or Indians. He doesn’t feel the need to introduce a Frenchman into the Amazon to mediate the experience for European readers. Any reader who’s ever fantasized about exploring the wilds of the Amazon rain forests will find Eight Hundred Leagues an entertaining and compelling read.

In one chapter, Verne briefly summarizes the true story of a Madame Odonais (born Isabel Graméson), wife of the French cartographer Jean Godin, who made a perilous journey through the Amazon basin in 1769. This fascinating story is recounted at length in the 2004 book The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker, a great read for anyone interested in Amazonian adventure.

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