23 May 2008

Book Review: Lighthouse at the End of the World

Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905)
By Jules Vern. Translated by William Butcher.

Back to Jules Verne. I hope I didn’t stay away too long for your Gallic adventure tastes.

One of the author’s last novels was Lighthouse at the End of the World, which was published the year of his death, 1905. The version published by Hetzel, however, contained significant revisions from his son, Michel Verne. Until this edition from the University of Nebraska Press, Jules Verne’s original manuscript was never available in English. The editor points out that many Verne scholars prefer Michel’s versions, but Jules Verne “has a moral right to have his version available.” I personally don’t care if Michel Verne’s version is “better.” I’m interested in reading Jules Verne, not Jules and Michel Verne. So I welcome this publication, and again give big thanks to the University of Nebraska Press for saving yet another genre classic. If you’re interested in the Michel Verne edition, you can still easily find it used.

(Strangely, this edition translates the book title, Le Phare du bout du monde, without the definite article. Since I am reviewing this edition, I will accept the editor change.)

The English-speaking world is mostly interested in Verne as a science-fiction author, so a pure adventure story like Lighthouse at the End of the World attracts less attention. But it belongs to two genres in which Verne wrote extensively: the castaway tale, and the maritime adventure. Like the classic Mysterious Island, the heroes of the story are stranded on an island in a life-and-death struggle. Unlike Mysterious Island, there is no Captain Nemo to save the day; our protagonists have to beat the bad guys all on their own.

The setting is Staten Island—not the one in New York, but the one on the southernmost tip of South America, the last island before the Southern Sea and the otherworld of Antarctica. Verne postdates the story to the 1850s, when the Argentine government completes the construction of a lighthouse on Staten Island to protect ships passing through the Magellan Straits. Staten Island has caused the death of many ships on its shores, and the new lighthouse will provide a great service to sailors. The government sends three men to take the first seasonal shift in the lonely lighthouse. But Staten Island isn’t as deserted as it looks; shipwrecked pirates have survived in secret during the construction of the lighthouse. The moment the Argentine naval sloop the Santa Cruz turns back to Buenos Aires, the pirates attack the lighthouse and kill two of the keepers. The third, Vasquez (no first name is ever given), flees into the island interior. The rest of the story is Vasquez’s plotting to prevent the pirates from repairing a floundering vessel and escaping before the Santa Cruz can return and exact vengeance on the killers. Vasquez finds unexpected help from an American sailor—Verne loves those enterprising American heroes—who washes up on shore after his ships cracks up on Staten Island.

As a thriller, Lighthouse at the End of the World is effective. The climax, with a ticking clock for both Vasquez and the pirates, cannonballs, and a shoot-out on the lighthouse, is exactly what you would want from the story. However, Verne spends far too much time describing ship repairs. We expect Verne novels to fly into exposition tangents, but I found these maritime digressions far less interesting than his flights into geology or marine biology in books like Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Verne loves his ships, but I don’t share that love. There’s also an unusually pessimistic focus on revenge instead of survival: by the mid-point of the story, Vasquez could easily survive the ordeal by staying hidden until Kongre’s pirates have left and then waiting for the relief vessel. He has plenty of supplies and enough shelter, and the pirates are no longer actively seeking him. But Vasquez risks his life to make sure that the reivers get nailed and receive their just deserts. Seeing them punished means much more to him than his life. This anger doesn’t feel like the younger Jules Verne, and this edition’s introduction makes clear that the elderly author was in poor condition at the end of his life, half-lame from a bullet his crazed nephew put in his leg and suffering from diabetes. Some of this negativity creeps into the work.

There is a movie version, entitled The Light at the Edge of the World, which stars Kirk Douglas as an Americanized version of Vazquez and Yul Bryner as the pirate leader Kongre. The script introduces a romantic interest absent from the novel with a character played by Samantha Eggar. British director Kevin Billington handled the shooting chores. MGM released the movie in 1971, and it has shown up only sporadically since then. It isn’t currently available on DVD in the U.S., so I haven’t had an opportunity to see it. It sounds intriguing, although only loosely based on Verne’s work.