Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
by Scott Snyder, The Believer, June 2006
by Charles D'Ambrosio, The Believer, May 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2005, February 2002 (core member of Surrealist movement, painter, poet, wife of Max Ernst and author of Between Lives: An Artist and Her World)
The New York Times Magazine, August 2001 (actor and playwright)
Time Out New York, January 1997 (on publicaton of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

Monturiol's Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World
By Matthew Stewart
Pantheon Books

By John Glassie, Dallas Morning News, September 2004

True to what seems like a very deliberately constructed subtitle, Matthew Stewart's new book, Monturiol's Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World, is not really the story of the invention of the submarine. It is the well-told and, yes, sure, extraordinary story of a struggling social visonary and activist, Narcís Monturiol, who at last found a single, strange vehicle -- or rather, vessel -- for all his ideas about science, progress and the future of humanity.

Born on the northen coast of Spanish Catalonia, Monturiol the student threw himself into the fight for a republic when the first Spanish Civil War broke out in 1834 -- a fight that would be fought, in one form or another, over the next century.

By the time twenty years had passed, Monturiol "had published a number of journals, all of which were now banned; he had helped to organize a radical political party, most of whose members were now in jail or exile, and he was currently wanted by the police," Stewart writes. "In other words, he was pretty much your typical utopian socialist revolutionary."

On the other hand he wasn't too typical at all, because he was also a professional portrait painter, a radical feminist, and the commercially unsuccessful inventor of a cigarette rolling machine. He was greatly influenced by the French pre-Marx communist Étienne Cabet (who, in 1848, would try to establish a utopian settlement called Icaria in an inhospitable region of northern Texas) and, in turn, he was evidently some influence on Ildefons Cerdà, the urban planner responsible for Barcelona's "egalitarian" (or alternatively, monotonous) grid design.

But most of all, Monturioul was utterly excitable when, midway in life, he came upon his own vision for an underwater craft that could "liberate humankind," as he put it, from "the fetters of the Earth's atmosphere." According to Stewart, Monturiol "believed in Progress with a capital P: the idea that the accumulation of scientific knowledge and the advancement of social justice were one and the same thing." His submarine project, therefore, "was a continuation of revolutionary politics by underwater means."

How this could be, in Monturiol's mind, or in some reality, is nicely handled by Stewart, who seems to have latched onto his subject for the way in which it allows, in his hands, lively discussions about a wide range of ideas of the time -- philosophical, scientific, crackpot and otherwise.

The main practical application envisioned by Monturiol was to elimate the serious hazards associated with diving for Catalan coral, a precious commodity in the age before plastics. "He thought he'd start by saving the coral divers of the world," writes Stewart. But he believed the submarine "would open up all sorts of opportunities for the land-locked working classes -- perhaps deep-sea fishing, salvage operations, underwater farming, who knows?"

Remarkably enough, the self-taught Monturoil went on to make himself into the greatest innovator in the field of sub-aquatic navigation of the 19th century. His first olive-wood and copper craft, Ictíneo (literally "fishboat"), solved the complex problems -- of buoyancy, pressure, propulsion and, not least, oxygen -- necessary to become not only the first true submarine in the world, but a reliable, if curious, feature of the waters off Barcelona's harbor. His proven enhancements to his second submarine, including an air-regeneration system and a chemically-driven steam engine, represented scientific breakthroughs of an even higher order.

The ever-identity-minded Catalans came to hail Monturiol's achievement (with poetry, parades and virgins with flower petals), but it was altogether dismissed by the Spanish bureaucracy, which might have funded further progress, and it was largely forgotten by the time the next generation of scientists took on the problem of underwater navigation.

Stewart makes an argument, a little heavy-handedly, for Monturiol's lasting, almost spiritual influence on his homeland. He asserts, for instance, that "the real monument to the great submariner is the city [of Barcelona] itself" and that the vision of Barcelona's great modernist architect Antonio Gaudí' was actually "a reproduction of Monturiol's subaquaitc utopia."

But in his portrayal of an endearingly quixotic mind, and in his treatment of the relationship between idealism and innovation, Stewart's touch is deft, and his aim is true.