June 21, 2007


The Kip Brothers. By Jules Verne. Translated by Stanford L. Luce. Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.

      Many of today’s readers – English speakers outside of France, anyway – are unaware that Jules Verne’s 54 Voyages Extraordinaires were not all works of fiction. The umbrella title was used both for novels and for factual works, all of them dealing with the then-latest trends in the sciences of oceanography, biology, geology and other fields. To the few really well-known Verne novels – Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea – interested readers will typically add slightly less-well-known ones, such as Five Weeks in a Balloon, The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon. Interestingly, the latest of these six, The Mysterious Island, dates only to 1875 – it was 12th in the series – but Verne continued writing these Voyages until 1905, the year of his death.

      The Kip Brothers is one of Verne’s late works, dating to 1902, and has never before been translated into English. Students of Verne and of turn-of-the-20th-century literature will welcome Stanford L. Luce’s elegant, easy-to-read version, although many of the complexities of this book (which runs, with notes, more than 500 pages) will not likely be of widespread interest. The Kip Brothers is no mere adventure tale: it is a detective story as well, and a commentary upon politics and judicial error in its time. The Kip brothers, Karl and Pieter, are never fully realized as characters; nor are the sailors with whom they find their lives entangled, who bear such names as Flig Balt and Vin Mod. The story starts as one of ocean exploration and rescue – subjects treated by Verne with his usual aplomb and sure knowledge – as the marooned brothers are saved by the crew of a ship called the James Cook. But all is not well onboard: the crew stages a mutiny, the captain is killed, and the brothers are accused of murder. From this point on, the book is largely about their attempt to prove their innocence. It tends to read like a police procedural and often now sounds clichéd (though it surely was not when Verne first wrote it): “The reader will remember that the dagger had been placed in the cabin by Vin Mod a few moments before Flig Balt had sent the cabin boy there, just so it would be see by Jim; then Vin Mod had taken it back and hid it in his own sack.”

      The investigation of the Kips is pursued with a vengeance – literally a vengeance – by Nat Gibson, the captain’s son. “It would come as no surprise if, in his state of mind, the unfortunate young man had forgotten everything that could have been called upon to defend the Kip brothers: their attitude since the day when the James Cook had picked them up on Norfolk Island, their conduct during the attack of the Papuans from New Guinea, the pain they showed upon learning of the death of Captain Gibson; then during the crossing on the way back, Karl Kip’s intervention during the height of the storm, which saved the brig from imminent destruction, or even his energetic suppressing of the mutiny led by the bosun!” Eventually, the evidence needed to exculpate the Kips is found, leading to “the son of Captain Gibson begging them…imploring their pardon” (ellipsis in the original). So justice is served at the very end; and the illustrations in this edition – the same ones that appeared in the first printing – add a great deal to its charm. Yet The Kip Brothers is mostly a curiosity today, with adventure sections as exciting as anything in Verne, but with an extended dwelling on legalisms and trial processes that will be of less interest to the general reader.

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