Sunday, 23 November 2014

Verne in Vigo - Maeve Friel

I love coming across literary sculptures, whether they are the slew of Paddington Bears which recently appeared in London, a dapper James Joyce leaning on his cane on Earl Street in Dublin or Don Quijote and Sancho Panza trotting through the Plaza España in Madrid.

This curious monument of a man sitting amid the tentacles of a giant octopus is also a literary monument. It is in Vigo, in Galicia in North-Western Spain - but what is it?

It is a homage to the French novelist Jules Verne, often described as the inventor of the genre of science fiction, and to the Galician references in his much-loved adventure Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 

First of all, the sculpture reminds us of the terrifying chapter in which Captain Nemo and the crew of the submarine Nautilus are attacked by giant squid, as in the English translation, or more correctly by giant octopus (les poulpes, in French). Galicia, renowned for spectacular seafood, is particularly in thrall to the octopus and Pulpo a feira, octopus in the style of the fair,  is its signature dish - boiled in huge cauldrons by the pulpeiras, specialist octopus cooks, the tentacles snipped up with massive scissors and sprinkled with olive oil and pimentón.

But there is another chapter of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea which takes place right in the Ría de Vigo, the Bay of Vigo. This was the real life location of a major naval disaster in 1702 when English ships burnt and scuttled the French and Spanish fleets which were returning from the Caribbean laden with treasure from the New World. In the novel, Captain Nemo comes to Vigo to loot the ships´treasure.

Around the Nautilus for a half-mile radius, the waters seemed saturated with electric light. The sandy bottom was clear and bright. Dressed in diving suits, crewmen were busy clearing away half-rotted barrels and disemboweled trunks in the midst of the dingy hulks of ships. Out of these trunks and kegs spilled ingots of gold and silver, cascades of jewels, pieces of eight. The sand was heaped with them. Then, laden with these valuable spoils, the men returned to the Nautilus, dropped off their burdens inside, and went to resume this inexhaustible fishing for silver and gold.
I understood. This was the setting of that battle on October 22, 1702. Here, in this very place, those galleons carrying treasure to the Spanish government had gone to the bottom. Here, whenever he needed, Captain Nemo came to withdraw these millions to ballast his Nautilus. It was for him, for him alone, that America had yielded up its precious metals. He was the direct, sole heir to these treasures wrested from the Incas and those peoples conquered by Hernando Cortez!

Don´t miss the monument to M. Verne if you are visiting this less well known corner of Spain, a place redolent with stories of shipwrecks, smugglers, fishermen´s tales and foot-weary pilgrims, the furious music of bagpipes and an all-pervading smell of octopus and sizzling sardines.  And of course, I recommend that you read the book too!


Joan Lennon said...

Verne is definitely worthy of a statue!

Maeve Friel said...

Indeed he is, and a suitably outlandish one too.