Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Story of Captain Nemo by Dave Eggers and Fabian Negrin Review

Save the Story is a new publishing initiative by Pushkin Children's Books to put out classic stories retold by contemporary writers in a shortened, more accessible manner to keep these tales alive in the 21st century. Jonathan Coe retells the story of Gulliver from Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Alessandro Baricco retells the story of Don Juan, Ali Smith retells the story of Antigone, and in this book Dave Eggers tackles Jules Vernes' world-famous Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in The Story of Captain Nemo.

It's a noble endeavour, to get kids reading classic stories, that joins other such efforts like Classics Illustrated where classic novels were retold in comics format, which was successful for a time, but I wonder at the name - Save the Story. Some of these stories are centuries old - will Gulliver's Travels ever be forgotten? I don't think so. No matter how much things like social media take over our day to day lives (the subject of Eggers' other new book The Circle), I can't believe that classic novels like this will ever one day be forgotten.

The story is that something that looks like a giant sea monster is sinking ships all around the world and a teenage boy called Consuelo and his eccentric oceanographer Pierre Arronax set sail on the Abraham Lincoln, "a cross between a fishing ship and a military destroyer". But after a fateful encounter, they discover that it isn't a sea monster that's sinking ships - it's a submarine called the Nautilus, captained by the mad Captain Nemo, and now Consuelo and Pierre are his guests - never to leave!

If you've read Verne's original book, you'll notice Eggers' retelling, while much shorter, is incredibly faithful to the source material - it really is a retelling as Eggers doesn't stray far from the core of the story. All of the characters are here - though in this version Consuelo is Arronax's nephew and not his assistant - including Captain Farragut and Ned Land, and the story follows the same pattern as the original.

Eggers deviates on two important points in the story - the first is Nemo's reasons for sinking ships, all of which are commercial fishing vessels, as he hates the way these ships are destroying uncountable ecosystems and decimating the world's sea life. Eggers turns him from an ambiguously exiled man, enraged at his isolation looking for revenge on civilisation, into a hardcore Greenpeace activist! The second is the removal of the giant squid from the story. As Eggers notes in his afterword, the main image readers take away from Verne's book (and indeed the equally famous film adaptations) is the scene where the giant squid attacks and he wanted people to take away more than this from the story - so he excised it entirely. It's an interesting choice that I think improves the story, at least in this version of it, making the focus of the book rightfully the doomed figure of Nemo as the title suggests.

Fabian Negrin illustrates the book, drawing vividly colourful images that bring to life some of the more exotic varieties of fish the characters encounter as well as the more dramatic scenes of ships sinking and Nemo hauntingly playing an organ. They do exactly what illustrations should do in a children's book and complements the story being told rather than overshadow or underplay it.

Eggers does a decent job of retelling a famous story for a younger audience, cutting through Vernes' admittedly laborious prose to present the heart of the story for a less patient readership without losing the spirit of the original. The Story of Captain Nemo is a fine, accessible book for younger readers looking to acquaint themselves with a classic novel.

The Story of Captain Nemo (Save the Story)

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