The plot is
simple if epic in its sweep. A wealthy French count clashes with
an avaricious bishop because the count's new wife, a Tuareg from
the Sahara, refuses to convert to Christianity. (In the high-adventure-and-romance
tradition of Jules Verne, Count Henri DeVries and his wife first
met when the count crash-landed his hot-air balloon in the Sahara
near a tribe of camel-riding Tuaregs, "a mysterious race
of men" who control the desert's caravan routes.) This being
a good, old-fashioned adventure story, the central characters
are defined cleanly along traditional, melodramatic lines: the
count is gentle, patient and good; the bishop is a potboiler
villain, a morally hypocritical, cold-hearted mogul-with-a-crucifix
who won his elevation to bishop by literally pummeling his predecessor
The clash gets serious when the count spoils a land deal that
would have made the bishop a stunningly wealthy man. A crafty
politician, the bishop hides his fury and waits six years for
his chance to retaliate. Ordinary men would have let the failed
business deal go, of course. But not the bishop. And one day,
as the bishop rides by the DeVries estate in his opulent carriage,
he sees his chance: the count's son is about to be attacked by
a wounded, wild boar (shot by the man to whom the novel's opening
line of dialogue is directed: "The children! Hold Fire!").
Naturally, the bishop keeps his driver from intervening and happily
watches the boy and his cousin be gored.
But despite the bishop's best efforts (or worst, as it were),
the two boys miraculously survive.
Another four years pass. In a foolhardy gesture toward popular
sentiment, Emperor Louis Napoleon declares war on Prussia, and
Bismarck's army soundly and promptly defeats the French army
in the field and puts Paris under siege. The Emperor is captured
by the Prussians, a new Republic is formed, and aristocrats are
forced to scramble for their lives. In the chaos, the count discovers
his brother (a colonel in the Imperial Guard) has been arrested
under false pretences as a deserter, and he is forced to plead
for his brother's release--but to no avail.
While the count's fortunes are in decline, though, the bishop
is in his element, brokering deals for military exemptions, insuring
that factories receive compensation for seized goods and seizing
the livestock and produce from his own diocese's tenement farms.
Once again, it would seem the villainous bishop is in a position
to revenge himself on the count--especially when the count's
sister-in-law comes to the bishop and throws herself and her
husband on his mercy. She expects him to demand sexual favors,
but instead he offers her husband's freedom in exchange for certain
papers dealing with land deeds. If she takes the bishop's offer,
she'll be thrown out of her brother-in-law's mansion, and she
and her family will be forced to live on the ravaged streets
of Paris. If she turns him down, her husband will almost certainly
be shot as a deserter. A tough choice, right? But what, the bishop
asks, if a little money were tossed on the scales? Would she
then be willing to betray the count?
Of course, she would. But don't count the count out. While
his sister-in-law is secretly betraying him, the count has undertaken
an audacious plan to get mail and supplies in and out of besieged
Paris with hot air balloons.
a moment to rest? Brace yourself: that's only the first third
of the novel. In the last two-thirds, the cousins are separated;
one grows up to be a French soldier, the other a reluctant Tuareg
warrior. Years pass, and they meet again when France sends out
a military party to survey the Sahara for a railroad route to
open trade between France and the African countries beyond the
desert. But now, of course, they are meeting on opposite sides
of a bloody, irrational conflict.
In the final chapters, Ball (who has himself crossed the Sahara
four times) delivers an intoxicating blend of rousing military
fiction and richly detailed travelogue for armchair enthusiasts
of distant, exotic lands. One scene, in which a morphine-addicted
French colonel foolishly leaves his men divided and exposed to
a Tuareg attack is particularly strong, and in the following
chapters that track the French retreat, Ball seems to be consciously
defying his readers to set the book down before it is finished.
Ball's portrayal of tumultuous1870s Europe is equally vividly
drawn. Indeed, his description of the increasingly chaotic Paris
under siege is spellbinding. He is especially good at personalizing
the fear inherent in adventure--whether he's showing us the fear
a boy feels when he's about to do something audacious like shoot
a Prussian soldier with a slingshot or showing us the terror
a young soldier feels in his first experience of real combat.
Minimalists be warned, though: Ball is not afraid of putting
a scene's underlying sentiment on display, and his love scenes
can be unabashedly emotional.
On the other hand, if you enjoyed
reading Victor Hugo and Jules Verne when you were a kid and have
spent your adult reading life secretly wishing you could find
the same sort of innocent, melodramatic rush in print, you're
in luck. In pace, heft and story, Ball delivers nineteenth-century,
romantic adventures by the handful.
But of course,
he's up to something else too. As his title suggests, he wants
to show that all grand gestures--whether it's Louis Napoleon's
monarchy or Prussia's military might or the Tuareg tribesmen's
dominance of the camel-driven caravan routes--ultimately come
to nothing. As Shelley wrote of similar imperial hubris in "Ozymandias,"
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But with Ball, at least, we get to see the adventures before
they were replaced by that lone and level sand.