By Nimish Dubey
How do you reach the center of the earth? And while on the subject, why on earth (pun intended) would you like to travel down the bowels of the planet? Well, both questions were answered in spectacular style by Jules Verne when he wrote A Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864. It revolves around the adventures of a German professor, his nephew and their guide when they decide to make a journey to reach the center of the earth by descending into – yes, read this carefully – a volcano. To most of us who have been brought up in the belief that the center of the earth is a burning hot core, such a journey would be suicidal and seems downright unbelievable, but then this is Jules Verne writing. And the man who gave us the utterly memorable Around The World in Eighty Days, serves up another compelling read.
The story is based in 1863 in Hamburg where Professor Liedenbrok and his nephew Axel stay, the former teaching and the latter studying. On May 24, the professor arrives in his house in a state of high excitement, clutching a rare manuscript of a twelfth century Icelandic author, and hoping to find out more about that period. However, a piece of paper falls out of the book when he opens it, which actually turns out to be a coded message from Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm, telling the reader the path that leads to the center of the earth. Axel regards this as pure nonsense and the ravings of a deranged mind, but his uncle thinks very differently indeed and after a pretty thorough scientific debate (rendered without a touch of jargon by Verne), the two set out for Iceland to enter the volcano Snæfell, (and by the way, this is a real volcano that actually exists and not a figment of Verne’s extremely vivid imagination) through the path specified in Saknussemm’s message. On the way, they pick up Hans, a guide who refuses to be ruffled by the apparent lunacy of their mission.
This threesome descends into the crater and what follows is a story that will defy everything you have ever imagined about what lies beneath the turf you are standing on. There are adventures galore and Axel almost dies of thirst at one stage and gets lost underground at another. Yes, most of it sounds unbelievable, given what we know about the earth almost a hundred and fifty years after the book was written, but Verne’s powers of narration literally sway you. The interior of the volcano and the passages leading to the (alleged) core of the earth are so well described that you can actually imagine yourself walking with the threesome as they proceed on their mad mission, and the sheer terror that Axel feels when he discovers that he has lost touch with his companions and is on his own with little chance of finding anyone hundreds of feet below the earth is one of the most compelling passages of the book.
As the trio go deeper into the earth, one suspects that Verne does tend to get carried away with his descriptions of what lies beneath and at one stage, seems to be stuffing everything that he can think of into the earth’s interior, but that thought comes only on cold analysis after one has finished reading the book. While you are turning the pages of The Journey to the Center of the Earth, you will rarely find time for such cold analysis. The book proceeds at a frenetic pace with event following event, rarely giving you time to sit down and think. In this, it resembles another Verne classic, Around The World in Eighty Days, rather than the comparatively slow Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
What the last mentioned has in common with this title has the sense of tension that Verne builds up in the early part of the book- in Twenty Thousand Leagues, one wondered what the mysterious creature sinking ships was, while in Journey to the Center, you keep wondering what Axel and his uncle will see when they go inside Snæfell. That he manages to keep you riveted in both books even when that initial tension has passed off is a tribute to his skills as a storyteller. You may not believe what you are reading in A Journey to the Center of the Earth, but it is doubtful that you will ever stop reading until the last page – there is tension, humour, cynicism, and a whole range of emotions on display (though not too much of romance, so stay away M&B fans), on top of that fantastic journey.
Yes, the premise on which the book is built seems unbelievable. So does the journey which Axel, Professor Liedenbrok and Hans undertake. Fortunately, so is the narration. Do not read A Journey to the Center of the Earth to know more about what lies within the earth or about geology. Read it to be entertained. For, this is the mother of all journeys, narrated by the father of all travel fiction authors.
Immensely readable. Buy it, or if you are in penny pinching mode, download it for free from here.