October 11, 2013

Hey, Verne!: Putin, Power, and the Mysterious Island of Spaceship Russia


On July 27th, 2012, Vladimir Churov made a surprise appearance.

The surprising part wasn’t that he appeared: after all, as both the man in charge of Russia’s recently-concluded presidential elections and a supporter of Vladimir Putin, the winner of those elections, Churov had every reason to take a victory lap. It wasn’t even the way he appeared, in a hot air balloon whose calm descent through the cloudy sky fit the nickname Churov’s rivals had given him, perhaps as a comment on his ability to pull political victories out of a place that I am going to euphemistically call his hat.

No, the surprising part of The Magician’s arrival at Seliger Lake—a jigsawn idyll of land and water located 300 miles outside of Moscow, and the annual site of one the biggest pro-Kremlin youth camps in Russia—was what he was wearing. Not a suit, or a folk-costume, or even the chamo fatigues favored by his hunter-gatherer boss, but a baby-blue t-shirt with the name “Cyrus Smith” written on it in bold Cyrillic letters.

As political memes go, it wasn’t exactly “Yes we can.” It wasn’t even as good as the stunt Churov pulled one year later, when he arrived at Seliger in a vintage 1945 “Victory”-model car flanked by the obligatory dancing Cossacks. A motorcade like that evoked the great tradition of Russian political theater from Peter to Stalin, and beyond; but the shirt had a contemporary feel to it. Instead of a slogan, it offered a puzzle—a puzzle that most of the young men and women at Seliger would solve using the same tool that young people always use to solve things: the internet. Just in case they didn’t, Churov’s camp provided a hint. “He landed on the mysterious island of Seliger as Cyrus Smith,” one election official said, wiggling his eyebrows as if to say, “Who knows, maybe I’m talking about the hero of a new Harry Potter spinoff?”

He wasn’t, unfortunately: he was talking about Cyrus Smith, the hero of Jules Verne’s 1874 novel, The Mysterious Island. Conceived as a Robinson Crusoe knockoff set during the American Civil War (the ABC Family-ish title of an early draft was Shipwrecked Family: Marooned with Uncle Robinson), The Mysterious Island upchucked Cyrus and his ragtag band onto one of those islands of dubious habitation that have fascinated western civilization at least since Defoe’s travelogue.

After christening their new home “Lincoln Island” (presumably in honor of their leader’s favorite mid-sized sedan), they get to work civilizing it. They do pretty well, mostly because of Cyrus’s moral rectitude and inexhaustible knowledge of, well, everything. His luck, too—a critical factor since perhaps the biggest mystery of Lincoln Island is the way that things seem to continually work in the settlers’ favor, no matter how impending the disaster. Beacons appear in the middle of a storm; ammunition washes up on the beach; Cyrus’s dog Top is ejected from the water only seconds before he is about to be attacked by a vicious dugong. Circumstance after circumstance breaks for the shipwreckees, in ways that begins to rouse Cyrus’s suspicion. Who, or what, is the mysterious force behind these interventions, he wonders? And why is he/she/it going to such lengths to protect them from disaster?

The shamelessly hyperactive deus of The Mysterious Island’s machina is something that genre-spoofers like Thomas Pynchon and Howard Hawkes would eventually critique, by creating plots with nothing at their centers and narratives that stagger forward with the balletic lurch of men who have just been shot. But it’s important to remember that the majority of Verne’s many, many readers over the years have loved his stories because, in the end, they were solved.

For all their spectacular special effects, his books aren’t just narratives, they’re shapes: symbols of justice as persuasive as any war monument or episode of Law and Order. What they prove is that any challenge, no matter how impossible it may appear to begin with, will turn out to be solvable given elbow grease and the application of the scientific method. The two great loves of the 19th century, in other words—which goes a long way to explaining Verne’s popularity among both his contemporaries and, I think, contemporary Russian politicians.

Churov’s balloon ride into Seliger may be most explicit recent example of high-profile Verneophilia—but it’s not the only one. In a 2011 interview with Outside Magazine, for instance, no less an enthusiast than Vladimir Putin admitted the French author into his personal pantheon:

“I have always loved and avidly read the novels of Jack London, Jules Verne, and Ernest Hemingway. The characters depicted in their books, who are brave and resourceful people embarking on exciting adventures, definitely shaped my inner self and nourished my love for the outdoors.”

Confusing as this grouping may sound to an American reader used to giving Hemingway a sui generis place at the pinnacle of serious literature, Putin’s quote gives us a clue about what Verne’s appeal—two clues, actually. The first of these is pretty straightforward. Like all great romanciers Verne offers “exciting adventures,” meaning a chance to imagine things that his audience would have no way to see in real life. This is maybe a little less impressive to us in the age of movies and television—which is why I’m inclined to think that Putin’s second point about Verne is the more salient one, at least to him.

This point focuses not on Verne’s celebrated plots, but on his characters: entities that critics have usually regarded as weak spots but which Putin calls “brave and resourceful people.” More than that, he credits them for shaping his “inner self” (presumably the same one that George W. Bush fondled during their famous mind-meld). Without stretching things too much one might go so far as to say that Putin appears to be encouraging Outside Magazine to see him as a Vernian hero. A brave and resourceful man, in other words—a man who responds to the outlandish and soul-crushing challenge of being shipwrecked on a deserted island by cheerfully rebuilding civilization, one trained orangutan at a time.

This sounds like good stuff, or at least good enough stuff for a press release; but as the French theorist/party-pooper Roland Barthes points out in a short essay “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat,” there is a darker principle at work in this kind of Vernian world-rebuilding—a principle that has less to do with the Great Outdoors than with the way “brave and resourceful” people try to make that outdoors a part of their own somewhat-less-great Indoors. “This principle,” Barthes writes, “Is the ceaseless action of secluding oneself…”

“To enclose oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and of Verne. The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: The Mysterious Island, in which the man-child re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain.”

For Barthes, Verne’s heroes aren’t manly explorers: they’re childish xenophobes. They want to turn the world’s messy disaster into something like a gigantic rumpus room, through whose picture window they can watch everything else going to crap, or just floating by peacefully—it doesn’t matter, since none of what’s going on out there has any chance of seeping in and infecting what’s going on in here.

As abstract as this inside/outside dynamic may sound coming from Barthes, I think it will be familiar to anyone who has tried to get a Russian visa. A porous and vitally heterodox society, Russia has always had problems figuring out how to keep what it wants in and what it doesn’t want out. That it thinks it can do this is no doubt the crux of the problem—this, and the fact that its leaders over the centuries have been pretty schizophrenic about which side they come down on. Peter the Great, for example, wanted to let some air in to the stuffy Russian shack: hence his famous desire to make the city that bears his name “a window to the west.” The view was invigorating to some and maddening to others. The window was subsequently slammed shut, pried open, boarded up, peeked through, curtained. Borders that barely existed one year became constipated with checkpoints the next…until, with the collapse of communism, what looked like a general hemorrhaging of the organism began. The Soviet Union broke down, broke up, splintered like an iceberg in suddenly-tropical waters. But what could have been the end of the story (or the beginning of a new one) turned out to be just another plot twist. Lawlessness—or at least a relative version of it—ran amok, until people became scared enough for someone to promise order without having to explicitly say that it would be achieved “by any means necessary.”

Thirteen years later, this battening of hatches is still ongoing. Russia in the last decade has declared its desire to cleanse itself of what it considers un-Russian again and again, inflating its definition of this term with every successful purge. The aggressiveness of this rhetoric in some cases—the Kremlin’s recent denunciation of “homosexual propaganda”, for example—can sound pathological; but it’s really just the natural result of owning a ship, which after all needs to keep air in and water out in order to float. Verne’s genius was to understand that the best pilots internalize this dynamic, no matter whether the vessels they’re directing are UFOs, balloons, submarines, islands or nations. His heroes are orderly above all else, which is what allows them to survive and eventually solve the complicated, but deeply ordered puzzles they find themselves in. In this way they are the opposite of the heroes of Russia’s rich fairy tale tradition, who succeed specifically because they are flexible, and therefore able to adapt themselves to changing circumstances. Success in fairy tales comes from making the best of what appears to be a bad situation; in Verne, on the other hand, the situation is the thing that has to change, and the hero is the one person solid enough to change it.

Taking Churov’s bait, we might say that Putin’s repugnant crackdowns stem from this the same Vernian impulse for harmony: to keep the vessel he’s in control of afloat in the midst of modern life’s entropic complexity. The same Russian impulse, too—for wasn’t it the progressive Peter who first saw his native land as a swamp, and understood the need to create an ark that could survive its buffetings? Since him, Russian achievement has frequently seen itself more as an act of conservation than innovation. Culture, order, harmony must be preserved, by any means necessary. The spaceship cannot be allowed to crash back to earth.

That it has to, eventually—that crashing is what human societies do, no matter how well-made—is one of the things that the novels of Jules Verne mostly don’t talk about. A rare exception is, oddly enough, The Mysterious Island, which ends up reuniting Cyrus Smith with that other iconic Vernian character, captain Nemo. As if in gratitude for his own authorial rescuing from the end of 20,000 League under the Sea, Nemo has become, it turns out, the benevolent force helping Cyrus’s band in their struggles on the island. They track him down at last towards the end of the book, confronting the dying old man in the candlelit bowels of his famously kraken-shaped submersible, the Nautilus. His is dying, repentant: plagued by doubts about whether or not the actions he has taken to try and make the earth more ship-shape have succeeded. “The noble misanthrope still yearned to do good,” Verne tells us, meaning, apparently, that he wants to keep talking until Cyrus Smith forgives him. “What do you think of me, gentlemen?” he pleads. “Was I wrong? Was I right?” To which soul-sob the clear-eyed Cyrus booms:

“Captain, your error was in believing that you could bring back the past and you have opposed necessary progress. It was one of those errors that some admire and others blame but which God alone can judge and which rational mankind must forgive. We may oppose someone who is mistaken in his good intentions, but we should not cease to esteem him. Your error is not one of those that excludes admiration and your name has nothing to fear from the judgment of history. History loves heroic madness while condemning its consequences.”

The most effective critique I can make of Cyrus’s speech—a critique that underlines why, at the end of the day, I find The Mysterious Island as terrifying as it is fun to read (and it is very fun to read)—is that I can imagine Putin and Churov loving it. Under the guise of manly restraint, Cyrus Smith does everything except plump Nemo’s foot pillows. It’s a remarkably forgiving attitude to take—though perhaps it’s also understandable. After all, how hard can it be to forgive the world when everything you don’t like about it has been disposed of?


JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at begborrowstijl.blogspot.com.