Earlier this week, at the end of my post on Gulliver’s Travels, I promised that we’d soon be catching up with the inquisitive seafarer again, and today’s review sees me making good on my word with a look at a work that makes Swift’s novel seem comparatively normal. Let’s join Gulliver and co. as they set off on a new adventure, heading north on a voyage of discovery where they find out they’ve bitten off far more than they can chew. The big surprise here, though, is that this is just as much the case for the reader as for the protagonists – just as this is no ordinary journey, it’s not your average novel, either…
In Volter Kilpi’s Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia (review copy courtesy of ZETA books), the Finnish modernist writer claims to have discovered an old manuscript containing an account of a hitherto unknown journey our adventurous friend made towards the end of his life. In April 1738, in the company of his neighbour, the whaling captain Cartwright, Gulliver set off in the Swallow Bird to search for the North Pole, believing that there must be land there, and perhaps people just as fantastic as the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians.
Initially, the voyage is rather eventless and dull, with nary a sight of even an iceberg, and the men begin to think the trip has been a waste of time. This all changes, however, when the Swallow Bird is one day caught in a mysterious current, pushing the ship off-course. As much as the crew attempt to right their direction, it proves impossible, and they soon see why when their new path takes them into a giant funnel of water, which they dub the Polar Vortex. As the pace picks up, the ship begins to circle the giant whirlpool, and it’s not only Gulliver who believes that this might be the end of his journeys…
Sadly, Kilpi died before he could finish the book, but that’s where translator Douglas Robinson comes in. In addition to rendering around two hundred pages of the novel into archaic English, he used notes left by Kilpi hinting at the story’s resolution to finish the book off, with the final eighty pages or so his own work. Indeed, it would be best to think of Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia as a collaborative effort, and the publisher acknowledges this on the cover. Instead of crediting him as a translator, the book describes itself as “a transcreation by Douglas Robinson” – which is one way to put it!
Of course, the observant among you will have noticed that the book wasn’t Kilpi’s work at all, and that he ‘translated’ Swift’s lost novel, and Robinson keeps up this pretence. He is merely the editor of the work, providing notes for the original text and commenting on interesting differences between this ‘original’ and Kilpi’s ‘translation’ into Finnish. Another common feature of the notes is his tendency to pick up on anachronisms, casting doubts as to whether the book, especially in its entirety, was really written in the seventeenth century, finding hints of 1930s events that suggest a later writer. But what to make of other parts where Robinson finds even later cultural, literary and linguistic allusions…
The story itself concerns the voyage north and the discovery of the vortex in which the poor sailors find themselves trapped, spiralling ever closer to the bottom of the funnel. Whereas the original Gulliver’s Travels glossed over the actual voyages, focusing instead on what Gulliver found in strange lands, here there’s much more attention paid to the terror the sailors feel and their helplessness:
‘Twas Wonder enow, that we were still here; that we were Persons & on the Swallow Bird’s Deck, & that our Grip did not release the others, any more than it did Our-Selves; that we did not acquiesce to the Going, – as all was going: – the Swallow Bird; the Sea; the Whirl of the whole World.
p.134 (ZETA books, 2020)
The psychological effect of staring into the vortex, and the sensation of paralysis and despair that builds, leads to many of the sailors simply giving up and hastening the death they believe to be inevitable. This all provides the book with a much darker edge – there are certainly no talking horses here.
There is some satire, though, and it comes after the inevitable escape, when the vortex takes the Swallow Bird‘s few remaining survivors forward in time. They end up in Phantomimia, a distorted version of 1930s London, and after sleeping off the effects of their narrow escape, Gulliver and his friends are amazed by what they see from the window of their hotel room, high above the city streets:
For outside that Window could be heard an indescribable Racket, & Fever of Activitie; which was not, perhaps, as clam’rous & cacophonous as one, in the 1st Shock of Astonishment, imagin’d; but at the same Time, so incessantly uninterrupted, or so uninterruptedly incessant, & so densely low & tenacious, that one might have believ’d all the Sounds in the World to have been loos’d at once. (p.238)
Of course, it’s just rush hour in central London, but for the seventeenth-century travellers, it seems like a hellish scene of people trapped and enslaved by infernal devices.
The story is interesting, but it becomes increasingly bizarre, particularly when Robinson takes over around three-quarters of the way through the main text. At this point, the pace increases, and events take a meta-fictional turn, which wasn’t always to my liking. What do work, however, are the texts preceding the novel itself. Just as in Swift’s inspiration, we have several documents setting the scene, muddying the waters as to who is actually responsible for the story, and here Robinson goes overboard to play along with the concept.
In addition to Volter Kilpi’s original ‘Translator’s Introduction’, itself translated into English by Robinson, our trusty translator/editor/transcreator includes a lengthy foreword that reads more like an action movie. Here we learn about the discovery of the manuscript and meetings with mysterious strangers (including one Ethel Cartwright, a man who later appears in the text as the captain’s son, and plays a major role in the happy resolution of the story…). Throw in a scathing reader’s report by a Finnish academic, Julius Nyrkki, who we later learn may just be another fragment of Robinson’s own psyche, and I’m sure you’ll agree that the translator is having great fun with his job.
Overall, I’d say Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia is a book that works well in parts. While the add-ons and the chapters describing the circling of the vortex are particularly good, the story can drag a bit at times, and I also feel that the overly archaic nature of the text (more so than the original?) also affects the reading experience. It’s certainly a clever book, one for those who enjoy literary games and the pursuit of the meta-fictional, but perhaps what I got out of it was one clear message, or a warning…
…even if the world is a fascinating place, sometimes it’s best just to stay at home 😉