Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
The ship’s mate leads me down the corridor to a door in the bulkhead. He stands ramrod straight next to the door, then announces “The master of the ship will see you now.” The door opens out and beyond the Nautilus’ glass plated bow is a beautiful and awe striking panorama of underwater flora and fauna. I hear harpsichord music reverberating through the ship’s hull. The song is majestic and haunting.
The virtuoso finishes his song and rises from the instrument. He announces himself as “Nemo, master of the Nautilus.” He is tall and well belt, dark-skinned, with a large salt and pepper beard. He is almost as inspiring as the underwater panorama behind him. He takes a seat with his back to the large window, and it seems to magnify his grandeur. You get a sense that this man was born to be one with the sea. And in a very true way he was.
“I am taken back by the opulence of the ship.” I admit, pointing out gold fixtures, mother of pearl decorations and the fine hard wood paneling of the submarine.
He nods and in a neutral tone reveals. “I was blessed with wealth from my birth and the sea has been generous in bestowing its bounty on me. And well I see no reason why I and the crew should not travel in the highest level of comfort that is available.” He said in a deep resonant voice.
I can’t really argue with that. “I know your real name is Price Dakkar, so where did the name Nemo come from?” I ask.
He replies. “It is Latin, it means nobody. It both represents the fact that I have completely withdrawn from the world of the land-dwellers and that I am nothing to them and they are nothing to me. But it also honors my kinder spirit, and fellow wander Odysseus who told the Cyclopes that his name was, Nobody. It tells the reader that he is about to embark on an epic voyage harkening back to the Greek classics.”
“Almost everyone knows you from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, but few people know that novel has a sequel They Mysterious Island. Care to tell us a little about that story?” I ask.
He rubs his long beard for a moment and then begins. “Back then shipwreck tales like Robinson Crusoe were all the rage. So Verne was putting his fingers into that pie so to speak. A group of American Civil War prisoners escape from a Confederate camp by stealing a balloon. A storm blows them to an island where they are stranded. They are given food and supplies as if the island is helping them. It is revealed that their benefactor is of course me. Which is meant to shock the reader because, they are left to believe that I died at the end of 20,000 Leagues.” He pauses then continues. “It is here that my back story is revealed and it also a tie in, not only with my tale but another lesser known Verne piece called In Search of the Castaways.”
“Now Verne didn’t invent the idea of the submarine, did he?” I ask.
nbsp; “Heaven’s no.” My host explains. “Verne was very much a man of the science of his day. He kept abreast of any invention or discovery and would often use them as inspiration for his writings. He learned about the French Navy submarine Plongeur, when he visited the World’s Fair in Paris. The Plongeur a revolutionary ship for its time but still needed a support ship for supplies and to occasionally pump oxygen into it. However do to its size it had stability problems and could not dive deeper than ten meters. Verne had me of course overcome the real world technical problems, but he also had the ship powered by electricity to overcome the need for steam engines.”
He looked over his shoulder for a moment, then turned back to me. “After he wrote 20,000 leagues under the Sea. Verne bought a yacht, it was his escape. His marriage had soured and his son was burning through his fortune engaging in basically un-gentlemanlike behavior. The sea was his escape. I think it meant freedom to him. That is why so many of his stories are set at sea or on an island. The story does have a happy ending he before his death Verne reconciles with both his wife and son, and they become a source of strength in his last day.”
As I note that last part down Nemo continues. “I would like to think we also inspired future scientist. In the way that Star Trek inspired future astronomer and astronauts, I would like to think that my crew and I inspired people to become oceanographers and marine biologist.”
“Verne suffered from depression but his books seem very upbeat and have an optimistic tone. How does that happen?” I ask.
“Verne’s stories were heavily edited by his friend and editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Who insisted the stories be more upbeat and have less depressing endings.” Nemo explains. “Verne is shot in the leg by a crazed nephew, and then a few days alter Hetzel dies, after those events Verne’s writing become much darker in tone. Hetzel’s son became Verne’s new editor and he was to say least indifferent. In fact no one would publish Paris in the Twentieth Century because it was too dark.”
With a wry smile he explains. “I am a protagonist. If you asked Sir Francis Drake that question he would tell you he was a hero of the crown. The French would say he was a pirate. I did use force against those who I thought were inflecting their will on those weaker than them or damaging the sea.”
“Now your back story is that you are Price Dekkar, the son of the Indian raja. That explains your wealth and anti-imperialist feelings.” The captain nodded. “But you were almost Polish. How did Verne decide to go with the backstory that he did?”
Nemo nodded. “It was important to Verne that I be an anti-imperialist. He wanted to make me Polish and that my family was killed by a Russian incursion. However Hetzel was afraid the book would be banned in Russia and also Russia was at the time a French ally. So he had Verne obscure my origins in 20,000 Leagues. In Mysterious Island he revealed that I was from India. Verne truly had an international audience at the time and though he was French his characters came from all around the globe, French, American, Germans, British…even Indians.’
“One of the most accurate portrayals of you comes from Alan More’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What are your feeling of that version of you?”
Nemo runs his fingers through his beard. “Well he got my ethnicity correct. No one watching the Disney movie would have known that I came from sub-continent. He also got the anti-imperialist tones of the story. But LXG is basically the dark underbelly of Victorian literature, with that lenses the story is much darker and grittier than one might have imagines. But in general I thought it was an accurate portrayal.”
A stormy anger flashes through his eyes. “That is most certainly not me. That was another character using my name.” He insists.
Become concerned for my safety I change the subject to something that will calm him down. “So tell me about the Nautilus?”
“It is a fine ship.” He says the anger in his turning to fondness. “The name comes from a shelled sea creature that instead of scuttling on the sea’s floor swims like a fish. She is entirely powered by electricity. Unlike the Disney version that looks sort of like a sunfish floating on its side, it is cigar shaped with a large aft propeller. Much like a modern torpedo. The US navy named its first nuclear submarine after my ship.” He says proudly. The clock on the wall strikes four and the grand man of the sea rises. “Forgive me it is time that I return to my watch.” And with that he sets of for another adventure.