The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on February 18th, 2014

#7 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #19
Published by Hetzel in 1879
Pages: 340
Location: China
Mode of travel: Ship, Walking
Buy from Amazon USA
Buy from Amazon UK
Read it on Wikisource
Kin Fo is the man who has everything, youth, health, riches and a beautiful fiancee. Despite all this, life barely seems worth living. When Kin Fo discovers he's lost all his money he's convinced things can only get worse so he decides to commit suicide. He sets up a desperate pact with his friend, the philosopher Wang, to kill him in such a way that he will at last feel a thrill of emotion before he dies. But will he change his mind?

Verdict: OK.

NB: It seems this book was only recently translated into English, the only free copies I could find were in French. I read the book in French, so I can’t comment on the quality of the translation.

Tribulations is not too bad. Actually, it’s better than I thought it would be. The plot idea of an over-pampered rich man who has everything except an idea of what to do with his life still resonates today. Kin Fo’s friend, the philosopher and reformed assassin Wang, is sure a bit of serious hardship will bring Kin Fo to his senses so he sets about providing it. It works, although I couldn’t help noticing that Kin Fo, upper class gent that he is, took care to bestow much of the physical hardship on his manservant and his American bodyguards – but that’s all part of the comedy.

Remembering that Voyages Extraordinaires had a didactic mission, I think Verne gave a fair representation of Chinese history and geography within the limits of his understanding. He displays some unfortunate ideas about racial purity (his hero is pure Han and all but white, none of that Manchurian interbreeding – sigh!), and western superiority (Kin Fo is entirely respectable and sympathetic, because he’s a fan of western technology in all its forms). Verne manages to convince himself that the exotic Chinese diet might not be so bad if you’re used to it but he can’t handle the music at any price…

On the other hand, his descriptions of poverty in China leading to mass emigration, the negative effects of imperialism, especially regarding the importation of opium and the political unrest within China probably do reflect major issues of his day quite accurately. His geographical knowledge of China is a bit limited  – I assume he relied on reports coming in mostly from the westernized trading posts. Consequently, his ‘tour of China’ when Kin Fo takes to the roads and rivers is only worth just so much.

Veronika decides to dieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho: a modern version of the same plot – I think Tribulations of a Chinaman is a worthy book because of its plot, rather than because of the Chinese backdrop so no wonder it reminded me of this more modern version. Veronika has everything but life feels empty so she decides to take a lethal  overdose. When she comes round, she’s informed that while she didn’t kill herself instantly, she caused enough damage that, just like Kin Fo, she has only a few days in which to savor life. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

The Snow Queen and her spawn

Posted on January 12th, 2014
The Snow Queen and her spawnThe Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Published by Reitzel in 1845
Pages: 40
Location: Europe, Scandinavia
Mode of travel: Boat, Reindeer, Sledge, Walking
Read it on Wikisource
*** Suitable for children and adults of any age ***

Gerda's friend Kay is missing presumed dead, but she can't rest without him. Half accidentally, half on purpose she sets off into the wide world to look for him. As she escapes the home of an enchantress, breaks into a palace and gets kidnapped by robbers, her own powers grow, until finally, she reaches the castle of the Snow Queen where her friend is held captive. Has she got what it takes to rescue him?

Verdict: one of the best fairy tales ever – and free!

More about The Snow Queen in a minute, but first this. I was inspired to reread The Snow Queen because Disney just released Frozen, very, very, very loosely based …  Even my adult friends told me Frozen was good and I should see it. My verdict on that one: I’m still friends with them, but I’m not sure I would pass the recommendation on.

FrozenA princess lives a cloistered life then becomes a fugitive because she can’t control her magic wintery powers. Only the true love of her sister can save her and their kingdom… What Disney should have done here is invested less effort in writing a new plot that isn’t as good as the original, and, given that they give the story a musical treatment, more effort in composing decent music.The animation is really very beautiful, the soundtrack sucks and the story is meh… I would probably watch this again, with the sound turned off and some classical music on in the background. On the other hand it’s not nearly as comical in a stupid way as the US and UK DVD covers respectively (why are they different?) make it look. So yeah, it’s that good – and that bad! I give it three stars… no two… okay two and a half. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

Gerda’s Journey

A lot of illustrations focus on the cold beauty of the Snow Queen but what really interests me is Gerda’s journey. And Kay’s of course. They actually start very similarly. Kay fastens his sledge to a stranger’s sleigh for fun and finds himself carried off by the Snow Queen. Gerda steps into a boat to ask the river for news of Kay and is carried off likewise, to the house of an enchantress. The Snow Queen kisses Kay to make him forget his previous life, the enchantress gives Gerda magic cherries for the same reason. He is trapped in eternal winter, she in eternal summer. Kay has an impossible occupation, a logic puzzle that can’t be solved by logic, Gerda has nothing to do but listen to flowers tell their silly self-centred stories all day long. It’s an allegory of course – Kay is trapped in an emotionless world of rationality, Gerda in a world of triviality and shallow pleasures. But Gerda escapes..

white_witch_and_edmund_by_autocon_femme-d32e2luThe caption says ‘Confusing Edmund Pevensie since 2005′, but it should be 1950, the publication date of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or even 1845 considering the obvious connection between this scene and the kidnapping of Kay in The Snow Queen. The White Witch gives Edmund turkish delight instead of a kiss. I would fall for that, any day. (book from Amazon USA, book from Amazon UK, film from Amazon USA, film from Amazon UK)

Actually, Gerda doesn’t escape the enchantress entirely under her own steam. The old woman gets careless and leaves one rose lying around to remind Gerda of the summer days she spent with her friend. But unlike Kay, Gerda still has the capacity to be touched by that memory and act on it. Her tears call back the roses of the garden long buried underground and they bring her news from the Land of the Dead: Kay is not there. She’s going to have to make a descent into another kind of Underworld. It’s quite mysterious. Sometimes I think I get it and other times, I’m sure I don’t. Maybe I’ll add more to this page later, as it comes to me.

 Ronia the Robber's DaughterI love the primeval nature of the forest and the robbers. I’m sure Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia, the robber’s daughter living in her half ruined castle and roaming the magical forest must have something to do with the robber girl in The Snow Queen, even is Ronia is a bit less wild and her story also has a Romeo and Juliet kind of theme. I never read this book as a child, but it was my daughter’s No1 favourite. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)