- Facing the Flag
infobox Book |
name = Facing the Flag
title_orig = Face au drapeau
translator = Cashel Hoey
language = French
release_date = 1896
english_release_date = 1897
media_type = Print
"Facing the Flag" or "For the Flag" ( _fr. Face au drapeau) is an
1896 patriotic novelby Jules Verne. The book is part of the Voyages Extraordinaires("The Extraordinary Voyages") series.
The Begum's Millionswhich Verne published in 1879 , it has the theme of France and the entire world threatened by a super-weapon (what would now be called a weapon of mass destruction) with the threat finally overcome through the force of French patriotism.
It can be considered one of the first books dealing with problems which was to become paramount half a century after its publicationFact|date=May 2007: brilliant scientists discovering new weapons of great destructive power, whose full utilisation might literally destroy the world; the competition between various powers to obtain control of such weapons; and also the efforts of ruthless non-state groups to have it.
Thomas Roch is a genius French
inventor, who came up with the idea of the Fulgurator, a weapon "whose action upon the atmospheric strata was so terrific that any construction, warship or floating battery, within a zone of twelve thousand square yards, would be blown to atoms", so that "the state which acquired it would become absolute master of earth and ocean".
For all of the above, however, there is nothing to show but Roch's own word, backed by no experimental proof whatever, and he demands to have huge sums delivered to him before making any details known and certainly before any tests were made of the weapon's feasibility. While Roch is not an unknown, having had some earlier inventions to his credit, no official could justify spending such sums to buy a
pig in a poke.
Upon the failure of his negotiations with his own government, Roch "forgets what could never be forgotten" - i.e., France's defeat in
Franco-German Warof 1870-71 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, a wound still deeply nursed by many French in their mindset of Revanchism- and crosses the border to offer his weapon at Berlin. But he meets no greater success there then in Paris, nor are the British and Americans which he later tries any more amendable.
In the process, Roch increasingly loses his sanity, becoming - as depicted by Verne - more and more bitter, magalomanic and paranoid - until the US Government finally tucks him away at a luxurious asylum in
New Bern, North Carolina, where he had spent eighteen months at the start of the book and looks likely to spend the rest of his life.
When first introduced to the reader, Roch seems endlessly greedy, asserting that millions would be "a paltry sum" for his invention which was worth "billions". But as becomes clear later, Roch is less after money as such than in search of respect and recognition. The four sets of government officials and military officers which he successively met evidently rubbed Roch the wrong way, their repeated demands of concrete proof making him feel that they were trying to steal his invention, while the pirate Ker Karraje - the story's main villain - would soon prove able to cater to Roch's vanity - and his desire for revenge upon those who humiliated him.
Ker Karrajeis a pirateof Malay origin who started his career closer to his homeland, in the islands of the Western Pacific- with a band which he had collected during a sojourn at one of the Australian gold rushes(where, evidently, he failed to strike gold, and turned to other means of getting rich). His heterogeneous crew of audacious rogues, drawn from "escaped convicts, military and naval deserters, and the scum of Europe", includes Malays like himself, Arabs and " Levantines", Europeans of various nationalities (An Irishman, an Italian and a Greek are explicitly mentioned), and even some Australian Aborigines.
Captain Spade and Engineer Serko, Karraje's two principal lieutenants, are described as "intelligent, well educated, resolute men who would most assuredly have succeeded in any career" but "being without conscience or scruples, and determined to get rich at all costs" they turned first to gambling and speculation and finally to outright piracy under Karraje.
After a wild career of robbery and mayhem around the
PacificIslands which made his name known and feared around the world, Karraje suddenly disappeared. Nobody knew that he did not change profession, but rather moved his operations to richer hunting grounds around the east coast of North America. There Karraje and crew live a double life. Karraje goes around openly, under the alias of "Count d'Artigas" - pleasure loving, slightly eccentric but eminently respectable, a regular visitor to the ports of the East Coast onboard his schooner"Ebba" which he had ordered, in a completely legal and aboveboard way, from a shipyard in Gothenburg, Sweden.
To outward appearance, "Ebba" has no other means of propulsion than its sails - but in fact it is pulled by an underwater tug. By these means, Karraje and his crew can pull up to unsuspecting becalmed sailing ships, board and rob their cargoes, massacre the crews and scuttle them, adding to the statistics of "unexplained disappearances". (In Verne's time the term
Bermuda Triangledid not yet have a wide popular currency, but the geographical location of Karraje's operations seems quite appropriate to this myth).
Karraje is cunning, suave and completely ruthless. He uses the most advanced technologies available at the end of Nineteenth Century, such as the aforementioned
submarine, to aid his career of robbery on the high seas. His heterogeneous crew works smoothly and efficiently, in both their ostensible honest seamanship and their clandestine deadly piracy - which immediately recalls the crew of the "Nautilus" under Captain Nemo.
However, unlike Nemo, Karraje is a pure
villain, motivated by nothing but greed, to satisfy which he is willing to kill ruthlessly and indiscriminatingly - with none of the redeeming qualities and complex ambiguities which made Capain Nemo, in the view of many, the most intriguing of Verne's characters.
Also, in the decades between the publication of
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seain 1870and that of the present book, the idea of a submarine in itself has evidently stopped being so fantastic as to deserve attention. Rather, the presence of submarines - in the hands of both the pirates and the Royal Navy- is taken for granted as a useful narration plot, while Roch and his fearsome super-weapon are given the center stage. Karraje hears of Roch and his invention, takes it seriously and decides to gain possession of it. Actually, his aim is rather modest, not to gain world mastery, but just to make his hide-out impregnable. He and his men successfully kidnap Roch from his American asylum and bring him to their hide-out, the desolate island of Back Cup in the Bahamas. Here a wide cavern, accessible solely by submarine, has been made into a well-equipped pirate base, with its own electrical power plant, completely unknown to the rest of the world.
During the kidnapping, however, Karraje orders his men to also take along Gaydon, Roch's attendant "to whom he was used for the past fifteen months". The reader knows - and as is later shown, Karraje is also aware - that Gaydon was actually Simon Hart, a French engineer and explosives expert who had decided "to perform the menial and exacting duties of an insane man’s attendant" in the hope of learning Roch's secret and saving it for France, actuated (as Verne puts it) by "a spirit of the purest and noblest patriotism".
Hart bears considerable resemblance to Marcel Bruckmann, the protagonist in "
The Begum's Millions", who penetrates the fearsome stronghold of that book's arch-villain. Both characters are engineers by training, and boundlessly dedicated, resourceful and brave French patriots by inclination. Both act as self-appointed spies belonging to no official agency, but showing considerable skill and ingenuity in that role. (Except for the completely unreasonable risk of regularly keeping a written diary while in the enemy stronghold and putting down in writing all their secrets and plans - a risk which Verne evidently imposed on both protagonists in the interest of providing the reader with a first-person narrative.) Bruckmann is in his mid-twenties, Hart in his mid-forties - which is precisely the amount by which Bruckmann would had aged in the time elapsed between the writing of the two books.
Hart is kept imprisoned at the pirate base, though in quite comfortable conditions. He can only watch in dismay as the pirate chief easily manages what four governments in succession have failed to do: win Roch over. Roch is given "many rolls of dollar bills and banknotes, and handfuls of English, French, American and German gold coins" with which to fill his pockets. Further, Roch is formally informed that the entire secret cavern and all in it are henceforward his property, and egged on to "defend his property" against the world which has so wronged him.
Soon, the inventor is busy constructing his fearsome weapon, happily unaware that he is nothing but a glorified prisoner in the pirate's hands. Chemical ingredients are purchased at his specifications and paid for quite openly at US stores, as are mechanical parts ordered from American foundries completely unaware of their true purpose, and so construction of the Fulgurator moves ahead. As is proven by practice, a few grams of Roch's explosive suffice to blow a passable tunnel through many metres of tough
volcanicrock. Engineer Serko remarks in talking with Hart that several thousands tons might be enough to blow up the entire Earth and render it into a new Asteroid Belt- which seems to be the first time that such a suggestion was made in Science Fiction (see Asteroids in fiction) - though no one in the book wants to put that to the test. But Karraje does ring his island with artillery pieces of a kind, which need not be very accurate - since the projectile powered by that enormous explosive, would generate such shock-waves as to destroy everything in an enormous radius around its path. There is no need to hit the enemy ship in order to destroy it.
The paranoid Roch does, however, keep to himself the secret of the detonator or "Deflagrator", a liquid without which the explosive is merely an inert powder. By holding fast to that last secret, Roch unwittingly preserves the life of his ex-keeper Gaydon/Simon Hart. Karraje suspects (wrongly) that Hart knows much more of Roch's secrets than he is willing to let on. It serves the purposes of the pirate chief, a completely ruthless killer, to let Hart live. The pirate engineer Serko, Hart's "colleague", hopes to win him over in prolonged friendly conversations. Hart's reticence is merely interpreted as proving that he has something to hide.
The pirates underestimate Hart, giving him a practically free run of their hide-out, since the only way out is via submarine. But after carefully studying the currents, Hart succeeds in secretly sending out a message in a metal keg, giving the full details of Karraje's operations and his impeding acquisition of the Fulgurator.
The message does get to the British authorities at the nearby
Bahama, who promptly act on it. A British submarine - HMS Sword- secretly arrives at the pirate cavern. Its men make contact with Hart, and take him and Roch on board - but the Sword is discovered, attacked and sunk by the pirate submarine in the kind of direct underwater submarine vs. submarine battle which was to prove very rare in the actual annals of submarine warfare.
The unconscious Hart and Roch are extracted from the sunk British sub by pirate divers, while the entire British crew headed by the heroic Lieutenant Devon perish. Hart rather implausibly manages to convince the pirates that he had been kidnapped by the British sailors and had nothing to do with their "visit", and resumes his role as a tolerated prisoner with a free run of the pirate base.
Meanwhile, Roch's weapon is completed and becomes operational - just in time for the book's climax: the arrival off the island of an international naval task force, consisting of five warships dispatched by the world's main five powers. Of these powers, three are certainly France, which is mentioned explicitly; Britain, which is the world's main naval power and in whose territory the secret pirate base is located; and the US, which is directly effected by Karraje's piracy. Germany, Italy and Russia might all be among the contributors of the other two ships. Presumably, the five powers were both cooperating against the common pirate threat and trying to keep an eye on each other and prevent any of their number from getting sole possession of the Fulgurator.
The weapon - operated personally by Roch himself, who has not given away the secret of the Deflagrator - works fully as advertised. Roch has no compunction in using it on British or American ships, and the first cruiser to approach the island is easily destroyed with only a handful of its crew surviving. Undaunted, the next ship approaches the shore, and the moment comes towards which the entire book was leading and from which its title was drawn:
"(...) The inventor has raised the phial [containing the Deflagrator] . The bugles sound louder and more strident. It is the salute to the flag. A flag unfurls to the breeze - the
Tricolour, whose blue, white and red sections stand out luminously against the sky .Ah! What is this? Thomas Roch is fascinated at the sight of his national emblem. Slowly he lowers his arm as the flag flutters up to the mast-head. Then he draws back and covers his eyes with his hand. Heavens above! All sentiment of patriotism is not then dead in his ulcerated heart, seeing that it beats at the sight of his country’s flag!"
Having at the moment of truth rediscovered his patriotism, Roch refuses to fire on his country's ship, struggles with the pirates who try to seize his phial and the Deflagrator, and finally blows up himself, his weapon, the pirates and the entire island. The single survivor of the cataclysm is Simon Hart, whose unconscious body with the diary at his side is found by the landing French sailors.
Hart is eventually revived, to be amply rewarded for his dedication to his country and bear witness to Thomas Roch's last-minute change of heart and self-sacrifice. French patriotism is the moral and material victor.
"(...) In the terrible explosion which destroyed the island of Back Cup, Ker Karraje and his pirates have disappeared - and with them Thomas Roch and the secret of his invention" is how Verne ends his book. However, knowledge of Twentieth Century history and how it was effected by the discovery of
Weapons of Mass Destructioncould lead to doubt if that would be quite the end.
Under the conditions described, an accelerated arms race would have been virtually certain to break out between the various late 19th Century powers, each seeking to rediscover Roch's weapon for itself. Britain would presumably assert its sovereignty over Backcup to thoroughly comb the ruins for possible clues; The French would grill Hart for anything he might have picked up and search for any papers Roch may have left behind; the Americans would locate Karraje's suppliers and thoroughly examine their records; and as for the other powers, knowing that such a weapon is possible would be enough of a clue to try their utmost to duplicate it. One may well speculate that in the universe of Verne's book, the
First World Warwould break out much sooner than 1914 and might be far more destructive.
* Following publication of the book, Verne was sued by the chemist
Eugene Turpin, inventor of the explosive Melinite, who recognizes himself in the character of Roch and was not amused. Turpin had tried to sell his invention to the French government which in 1885 refused it, though later purchasing it (it was extensively used in the First World War); but Turpin had never gone mad, nor did he ever offer his invention to any but the Government of France, so he had some justified griveance. Verne was successfully defended by Raymond Poincare, later president of France. A letter to Verne's brother Paul seems to suggest, however, that after all Turpin was indeed the model for Roch. The character of Roch and his revolutionary powerful explosive might also have been be inspired by the real-life Alfred Nobelwho invented dynamiteand later reportedly regretted having introduced such a destructive force into the world (see [http://home.netvigator.com/~wbutcher/articles/A%20Chronology%20of%20Jules%20Verne.htm] , [http://jv.gilead.org.il/FAQ/] ).
* "Tonnant", the name of the French cruiser whose proud flying of the French
Tricolourhas such an enormous effect, was not accidentally chosen. There had been an actual French warship bearing that name, built in the heroic days of the French Revolution, captured by the British in The Battle of the Nileand used effectively against her French builders at Trafalgar (and later against the Americans in the War of 1812). She remained the Royal Navy's HMS Tonnantuntil being finally broken up in 1821 - but at least symbolically through Verne's story, the Tonnant (like Roch) returns to her true allegiance and flag.
* The book was written and published when France was in the throes of the
Dreyfus Affair, with Frenchmen were deeply divided over whether or not the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfuswas guilty of treason and espionage on behalf of the hated Germany (and over more fundamental issues bound up with the Dreyfus case). Verne is known to have initially supported the right-wing anti-Dreyfusards. The question whether or not Verne was an anti-semiteis hotly debated; Walter A. McDougall stated that "there is no overt evidence of anti-Semitism on Verne’s part" [http://www.fpri.org/ww/0204.200109.mcdougall.vernes.html] , while Herbert R. Lottman claimed that "Verne refused entreaties to moderate his passionate anti-Semitism" ( [http://www.amazon.com/dp/0312146361/] ) and that his Off on a Cometcontains "unflattering Shylock-style stereotypes" ( [http://jv.gilead.org.il/taves/taves73.html] ). Be that as it may, Verne certainly was a nationalist caught up in the mindset of revanchism, to whom the idea of a French army officer - Jewish or not - spying for Germany would be the highest of anathemas; and initially he - like most French people - believed implicitly in Dreyfus' guilt. Yet in 1899 Verne came to support a judicial review of the Dreyfus case (see [http://jv.gilead.org.il/butcher/chron.html] ). While Roch cannot be said to represent Dreifuss in any concrete way, the theme of an apparent traitor who in the end proves to be a self-sacrificing patriot may be connected to the change of heart which Verne (and many of readers) underwent about Dreyfus.
* Some critics consider Roch as the earliest archetype of the "
mad scientist" whose warped genius endangers the world, and which occurs in much of Twentieth Century thriller fiction (see [http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/birs/bir79.htm] ), but the claim is contested by Conan Doyle's Professor Moriartywho made his appearance across the Channel at virtually the same time as Verne's scientist. Several of the villains which James Bondconfronted seem to be the direct or indirect literary descendants of Ker Karaje with his well-equipped island hide-out.
Karel Zeman's 1958 film " The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" ("A Deadly Invention", "Vynález zkázy" in Czech), made in Czechoslovakia, was based on Verne's book (see [http://www.jules-verne.nl/gb/2005/film-denhaag.html] ). Critics consider the film "a historic land-mark of cinematic resourcefulness and imagination", made without the special effects and computer enhanced animation available nowadays ( [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052374/] ). Zeman made considerable use of the lithographic drawings which accompanied the original Verne text.
* [http://jv.gilead.org.il/zydorczak/face00.htm Original French text]
* [http://www.uflib.ufl.edu/ufdc/?b=UF00085976&v=00001 "For the Flag"] English text version with full page cover and page images from the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature and the
University of Florida Digital Collections
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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