It is fitting that a graphic novel attempting to encapsulate the life and mind of one of the greatest polymaths to ever grace the planet is absolutely massive, a real coffee table chunkster! Or as the scientist Humboldt with his penchant for exactness would say: “25×31 cm / 10×12 inches weighing 1.4 kg / 3.1 lbs”.
This is not the first time that I have followed Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland on their travels through South America. I first read about them in Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (so good, I have reviewed it, not once, but twice) its sly wit demonstrating that genius is often only just on the right side of sanity. Then came Andrea Wulf’s award-winning and completely absorbing history, The Invention of Nature. That she has returned to her favourite subject to present him graphically surprised me at first. Because a graphic novel can only touch superficially on matters already covered in depth elsewhere. But then perhaps the book isn’t aimed at me, but at a younger audience, its intention to serve as an introduction and to arouse curiosity in the scientist who has had more things (species, sea currents and other topological features, streets and squares in Germany, etc) named after him than any other scientist ever.
As soon as I engaged with the book on its own terms (always a good idea), it improved enormously, and the issues that were irritating me, bugged me no longer. Issues such as the naïvety of the text, the simplicity and sketchiness of many of the illustrations, the lack of Kehlmann’s wit. The latter point is totally unfair of me, because Wulf does inject humour in the piece. The framework is that of Humboldt retelling his adventures at the end of his life, and, in so doing, gives evidence of his legendary garrulousness and self-importance. Nevertheless the saga of the barometer eventually had me chuckling.
I particularly liked the setting of Melcher’s illustrations over facsimiles of Humboldt’s original notebooks and sketches, to produce an ofttimes busy collage, and probably a fair reflection of the man’s restless mind. In contrast, there are pages of such simplicity that I wondered if the cost of production was worth it. But overall, it is a sumptuous production. When we reach Mount Chimborazo, where Humboldt climbed to the height of 19413 feet, giving him and his crew the then world record for altitude, it is the literal high point of Humboldt’s career. To celebrate in style, as Bonpland and Humboldt look down over Chimborazo, the pages fold out and the view widens to show the scale of Humboldt’s discoveries on his trek through the Andes. Truly amazing and more than a little inspiring!
Take a look for yourselves ….