Contributed by Nimish Dubey
It’s a book that is considered a literary classic, has sold millions of copies, inspired film directors to convert it to celluloid and even has an animation series named after it. And yet, for most people, it does not really figure among great travel novels, simply perhaps because they had far too good a time reading it to notice that travel was the central theme of the book. We are talking of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a book that is admired more in literary circles than in travel ones.
And yet, there is no doubt that the book pretty much redefined how travel was written about when it was released in 1873. At a time when travel writing was largely associated with often ponderous journals, Verne decided to build a whole plot around a sensational journey. Englishman Phileas Fogg stakes twenty thousand pounds that he can make a trip around the world in the time of eighty days. His friends take him up on his wager, saying it is unlikely for someone to do a task as massive as this in such a short period (remember, we are talking of the steam age). Fogg sets off on his trip, accompanied by his new valet, Passepartout (a name acquired thanks to his tendencies to leave jobs at the drop of a hat). Both follow a route that takes them across all continents, barring Australia, with stop overs in countries like Egypt, India, and the United States. Complicating matters are a lady whom the duo rescue from being burnt alive (suttee) and an English detective, Fix, who is convinced that Fogg is actually a bank robber trying to throw the police off his track by pretending to take a trip around the world.
And there you have the ingredients of perhaps the greatest journey ever taken in the history of literature. Fogg, utterly unruffled, trying his best to brave the elements and other obstacles that come in his path (often by paying generous sums of cash); Fix attempting to delay so that he can get a warrant to arrest him, Passepartout just bumbling his way in and out of situations that vary from almost being burnt alive to being thrown out of an Indian temple to being a part of a troupe of gymnasts. It is a rich cast of characters and Verne’s narration contains some wonderfully deft conversations and twists in it. Perhaps the most memorable of all exchanges occurs between Fix and Passepartout when the latter discovers that his watch is no longer keeping correct time, which ends with Fix telling him to change the time on his clock otherwise “it will not agree with the sun.” To which Passepartout replies memorably, ” So much the worse for the sun, Monsieur. The sun will be wrong then.
While all readers remember the plot of the book very well as well as its unusual denouement (no, we are not telling you whether Fogg won or lost his bet – read the book, please), what is often forgotten is the wonderful narration of the journeys made by master and valet throughout the world. This is brilliant travel narration at its best, although some might bridle at the descriptions of India and other regions as being typically colonial, we would request you to keep an open mind and recall the period of the book. Rarely has travel been so entertaining, full of events, humour, tension and even the odd moment of romance.
All of which are more than enough for us to call Verne’s masterpiece the Greatest Travel Novel ever. You can download it for free from here, although we really would recommend your buying it!
And do join us for a coffee at the Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, India.