On Verne’s Birthday: Michael Strogoff
And this being Jules Verne’s birthday, why not go and reread one of his books – or watch a movie basedon one of Verne’s books?
And KeithTaylor mentioned Michael Strogoff, and that’s quite a nice choice for Karavansara: an adventure yarn, set in the heart of Eurasia, and featuring chases, swashbuckling, heroics and derring-do.
All in a neat package, courtesy of one of the fathers of science fiction – but here applying his skills to a spy thriller of sorts.
It is also one of the titles on which my generation cut its teeth as readers. But we’ll get to that.
Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar was published in 1876, and was an instant success. Indeed, it is still regarded today as one of Verne’s finest. It is to this day, together with Around the World in 80 Days, Verne’s bestseller. Published as part of the Voyages Extraordinaires it has a little science in it, but is a straight adventure story, with an espionage twist and a lot of exotic detail (also thanks to Ivan Turgenev’s support as content editor).
The plot in a nutshell: a man has to ride through Siberia and reach Irkutsk to warn the local governor that a traitor – a former officer of the Czar’s army – has joined the rebellious Tartars.
Along the way he meets a young woman, fights a bear bare-handed, is captured, blinded with a red-hot iron, regains his sight, has his revenge, and gets the girl.
The protagonist is Michael Strogoff (Michel in the original French version) a messenger for the Czar and a native of the region in which he has to travel. Strogoff is upright and loyal and courageous and all of those things1, but with a streak of Russian sentimentality, he has a strong connection with his mother, that turns out to be his Achilles’ heel.
While not a science fiction story, the whole shebang relies on a colossal implausibility – the idea that the Tartars could revolt against the Czar’s authority and be a serious menace. A believable scenario in the 16th or 17th century, but highly unlikely in the second half of the 19th century.
And if solid and reliable Strogoff is sometimes tiresome in his dedication to duty, his courage and his resourcefulness, it’s the supporting cast that’s really memorable. The British journalist Harry Blount and the French photographer Alcide Jolivet act as chorus and comedy relief, and have a few surprises in store of their own. The bad guy Ivan Ogareff does have a certain tragic stature, but is overshadowed by the Tartar hussy Sangarre, one of the few memorable women in Verne’s opus.
All in all, a great story – that you can find as a free ebook on the Project Gutenberg – that was turned in a number of movies, starting in 1908.
In a comment to the previous post I mentioned the 1975 four-part miniseries that was a big hit with my school mates, but I guess we should also mention the 1956 French-Italian movie version with Curd Jurgens as Strogoff, and the 1970 version featuring John Philip Law in the titular role.
I understand that Michael Strogoff is not well known in the English-speaking world – where Verne’s most popular books are probably Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Conversely Michael Strogoff is particularly popular in Italy because it is not science fiction, but a bona fide historical novel, and thus fits the obsession with “realistic literature” that plagues our school curricula. I do not know what is the current state of affairs, but through most of the 20th century it was a staple of school libraries, it was strongly suggested as a summer read for schoolboys and, together with Jack London’s White Fang, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Charles Dickens David Copperfield, it was one of the books that any kid around 10 years old was likely to get as a Christmas gift. And seriously, there are worse choices of reading matter for a young boy (young girls had to make do with Little Women, Black Beauty and Heidy).
So, here goes.
Check it out: Michael Strogoff could well be the perfect Verne book for the readers of Karavansara.