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Reviews (ADR)

from Reviews (ADR)
concerning Le Capitaine Pamphile

     Capitaine Pamphile is an awkwardly assembled comic novel, which began as a pair of short stories (James I and James II) and was subsequently expanded by Dumas into a cross between a travel adventure (à la Madame Giovanni or Gil Blas) and perhaps fanciful animal memoir (like Histoires de mes bêtes).
     The two James of the original short stories were small old world monkeys. Dumas begins his narration in Paris in 1831 with an account of how he rescued a turtle (which he named "Gazelle") from a culinary fate, and conveyed it to the home of his friend, the painter Descamps, who already possessed a menagerie which included a monkey (James I), a bear (Tom), and a frog (Mme. Camargo).
     The story then begins to alternate between accounts of the sad and grotesque fates of the various members of the menagerie, set in Paris, and Dumas' imaginings of the circumstances under which the animals were brought to France, captured in Africa or North America by Capitaine Pamphile, an ethically challenged Provençal sea captain. However, Dumas apparently enjoyed writing about his creation, and Captain Pamphile has soon hijacked the narrative.
     Captain Pamphile, on a trading voyage to Africa, begins by hunting big game, and captures an orphaned monkey (James I), goes on to hijack the cargo of a Chinese merchant ship, which he sells with a great profit, and then departs on a second voyage to North America, where he hijacks the cargo of several fishing boats, before his crew mutinies and throws him overboard. Pamphile washes up on Prince Edward Island, in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where he is taken as a slave by the Iroquois Indian chief, Black Snake, who seems to have been borrowed from James Fenimore Cooper.
     Black Snake and his captive sail a canoe up the Saint Lawrence River past Quebec and Montreal, and Pamphile escapes when the canoe upsets. Pamphile walks for three days through trackless wilderness to arrive in Philadelphia(!), having first captured an escaped performing bear (Tom's mother). Pamphile finds his ship docked in Philadelphia, and sneaks aboard, throws the mutinous first mate to the sharks, and one morning reappears on deck in his accustomed place, to the horror of his cowed crew.
     In his next voyage, to South Africa, Pamphile forms a military alliance with an African tribe, and seizes the captives resulting from the war as slaves, which he crams into the hold, only 30 or 40 dying en route, and sells the survivors profitably (the slave trade having been legally abolished) in Martinique. He then sails for Nicaragua, where he finds Black Snake, deported from Canada by the British, ruling over the local population.
     In Pamphile's final adventure, he arrives in Britain in the guise of Black Snake's Ambassador, a raises a loan of 12 million sterling, and recruits a shipload of emigrants who have paid for the right to hold various monopolies in Nicaragua. The emigrants are dumped on the Mosquito Coast, where many succumb to disease and starvation before the swindled survivors make their way back to England.
     Much of the humour in Pamphile derives from the deadpan tone with which Dumas relates Pamphile's various crimes, without affecting to notice anything odd about his behavior. While F. W. Reed describes Capitaine Pamphile as a children's book, it would be an incautious parent who would offer this story to a child.

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