Sunday, May 06, 2007

Following The Equator by Mark Twain

How this book came to be called Following The Equator, I will never know. Sure, it is some sort of circumnavigation of the world, but there is no dedication to the task the title might suggest is Twain's objective. Instead, it is an account of his lecture tour of the British Empire, undertaken in the late 1890's in an effort to stave off bankruptcy after an over-enthusiastic investment in a hopeless product. None of the subject matter of the lecture tour is revealed: it is ostensibly a travel narrative but Twain's tendency to tall tales often gets the better of him. For me, these tales have been the best part of the book: had I not known them to be untrue, I would have been taken in by them.

He starts out innocuously enough, suggesting that the Equator can be seen as a blue ribbon, which "several passengers kodak'd" (I have vague memories myself of thinking that the Equator could be seen). Another suggestion is that the Moa (a large, now extinct, bird native to New Zealand) had been used in the early days of Australia to carry the mail but when they came into competition with the newly built railroad had had to be exterminated.

His best performance involves Cecil Rhodes (better known as the founder of Rhodesia and the de Beers diamond business). Here, he locates Rhodes in Sydney with no money, no job and no prospects. He is so down on his luck that he is willing to spend the day monitoring some fellow's shark fishing rod - the deal being that he can keep whatever he finds within any shark he might catch. Sure enough, he catches a huge shark, and is next seen approaching the richest man in Sydney, wanting to borrow a large sum of money to corner the wool market, saying that war has just broken out in Europe and the price of wool is shooting up. Since he looks like a "sundowner" (tramp), the reaction is not favourable: proof is required, especially since the most recently available English newspaper in Australia makes no mention of the war. Triumphantly, Rhodes produces a newspaper of a mere ten days vintage - this is what he extracted from the shark, along with a few buttons.

Another story involves one of the Vanderbilts (although, curiously, the story is not set in any place Twain visits on his journey but appears completely randomly). A young fellow working in the tobacco industry in Memphis is given a fake letter of introduction by his mates (they liked to play jokes on him because he was so serious) to Vanderbilt. The fake reminiscences within the letter are so good that Vanderbilt obviously so wants them to be true they become true to him. Thus, the visitor from Memphis is given a very grand reception and does very nicely indeed from the joke.

Apart from poking fun at the rich, he gives good accounts of the scenery encountered and of the political situation of the native people in the various countries he goes to (although there is a tendency to romanticise - hardly surprising since it appears he manages to visit Australia and New Zealand without once seeing or talking to an Aboriginal or Maori). He ends up being quite impressed with New Zealand, although his first real mention of it is to demonstrate how obscure it is:
If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is; for he is as I was; he thinks he knows. And he thinks he knows where Hertzegovina is; and how to pronounce pariah; and how to use the word unique without exposing himself to the derision of the dictionary. But in truth, he knows none of these things. There are but four or five people in the world who possess this knowledge, and these make their living out of it. They travel from place to place, visiting literary assemblages, geographical societies, and seats of learning, and springing sudden bets that these people do not know these things. Since all people think they know them, they are an easy prey to these adventurers... All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge. But that is not so.
This is then transformed into a great story about a Professor of Theological Engineering, who journeyed from New Zealand to Yale. The Professors there are so embarrassed by their lack of knowledge about New Zealand ("it is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge") that they all agree to research various aspects of New Zealand and make it their topic of conversation when they give the visitor his dinner. So staggered is he by their knowledge of New Zealand ("a remote little inconsequent patch"), that he dare not engage them on any other topic.

But Twain seems genuine in his praise for New Zealand, in at least trying a more humane way of colonising it and in giving both Maori and women the vote and the right to be in Parliament. This might seem a little patronising today, but when he was writing this, New Zealand was the first country in the world to be so progressive: he is holding us up as an example of fair play.

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