The Mighty Orinoco

by Jules Verne

Published by Wesleyan University Press

424 pages, 2003




Hidden Treasure

Reviewed by Chuck Gregory


A new novel from Jules Verne sounds impossible. It might be more apt to call it new to us: The Mighty Orinoco was published in French in 1898 and, for one reason or another, the book was never translated into English. Until now.

The Mighty Orinoco tells of a young man's search for his father along the then-uncharted Orinoco River in Venezuela. Subplots include the vehement disagreement among three geographers concerning the actual source of the Orinoco, the dastardly escaped convict Alfaniz who seeks to rejoin the bloodthirsty Indian tribe whose leadership he had assumed previously, and the two Frenchmen who have gone missing while on a scientific mission near the river.

In typical Verne fashion, there are as many twists and turns in the plot as there are in the fabled river. Everything seems connected to everything else, and everyone to everyone else. Many of the intricacies will be guessed before they are explicitly revealed, but that's part of the fun.

And fun it is. This is a thoroughly annotated book, with scholarly discussions and a treatise on the suppression of "Le Superbe Orinoque" because of the presence of a strong female heroine. There is a well-written introduction and notes from renowned Verne scholar Walter James Miller. But that part is work -- or at least scholarship. To me, it is more important that this book is fun to read. The drawings from the original French publication, included in this magnificent edition, combine with the fast-moving plot well preserved in the translation by Stanford L. Luce to make this a novel that can be enjoyed, as a novel, today.

There are some problems. Most egregious, to me, is the attitude of the Europeans toward the South American natives. Human life is not highly valued when that life belongs to an Indian. The mysterious missionary, who may have information on Jean de Kermoor's father, is said to have saved the lives and souls of the Indian tribes in his area. None of these natives are perceived to have had any inherent value before their conversion to Christianity. The casual attitudes concerning racial supremacy and violence are offensive to me, and I think to most modern readers.

But those attitudes reflect the times, and there are glimmerings of more enlightened views. I previously mentioned a strong female heroine, without any further identification. The intricate construction of this novel is such that the very existence of this person is not revealed until the plot has fully developed. I cannot in good conscience reveal her identity in this review, for it would rob the reader of a great surprise. Suffice it to say that she exists, and that she is a likable character who exhibits great courage and an exceptionally strong will. She was not the first heroine to have qualities that were often considered to belong exclusively to men, but she was among a select few when this book was originally written. It took a certain courage for Verne to create this unusual protagonist.

There is an odd mix of complexity and simplicity in the characterization, which parallels a similar mix in the plot. The characters are getting to know themselves even as they are discovering each other. The plot includes a series of deceptively calm episodes alternating with violent ones, each containing elements that foreshadow the next event. The formula works, although the suspense is a bit too obvious, too contrived, for my hackneyed 21st century taste.

There are many diverse threads and patterns, skillfully woven into one cohesive fabric. The notes that are collected at the end of the book are helpful and informative -- although I prefer footnotes, on the same page as the reference. A hypertext version for the computer might actually be the best format for study.

The translation is a good one. The lyrical prose style consistently kept my interest, and I commend Stanford Luce for his achievement in bringing this Verne tale to life in English.

This beautiful edition, complete with the wonderful drawings from the original, is perfect for reading, and that is what I like to do with novels. Let others study them -- I will shamelessly enjoy the book itself, and learn what I can from the scholarly analyses of others. I enjoyed this one thoroughly. | April 2003

Chuck Gregory calls himself a Renaissance Man because he has such a variety of skills and interests. He does computer consulting, writes opinion pieces and book reviews, works with mental health consumers and runs a print shop -- but still manages to read at least three books a week. He lives with his wife and two dogs in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.