Monturiol's Dream by Matthew Stewart

One man's search for utopia beneath the waves
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Presuming that the publisher is responsible for this book's generic cover design, anodyne title and melodramatic subtitle ("the extraordinary story of the submarine inventor who wanted to save the world"), Matthew Stewart has been done a disservice. Here, contrary to appearances, is a subtle and delightful tale of a scientific pioneer one is glad to know.

Narcís Monturiol struggled all his working life to build the Ictineo, the first "true" submarine: one that could roam freely under water and stay down for long periods. He was active in the 19th-century utopian movement, mixing with revolutionaries who relished the company of a technological doer. Their hope was to found a Spanish version of the loopy Frenchman Etienne Cabet's new Jerusalem, Icaria.

The two projects were one to Monturiol, making him an unlikely blend of Brunel, Samuel Butler and Shackleton. The submarine would be a scientific tool to explore the deep but, above all, a realisation of his social and political ideals.

Stewart's glib tone ("he was pretty much your typical utopian socialist revolutionary") may grate, and he can be careless with clichés: surely it was no "miracle" when the Ictineo surfaced after its first dive, so far as the scientific utopians were concerned. But he is good on "the transcendental effect of neutral buoyancy" as both utopia and nirvana, and convincing about how Monturiol regarded his submariners as an ideal community.

Stewart breezes merrily through the national history of the period, and is thoughtful on problems of innovation. The reason we don't remember Monturiol, or any one inventor of the submarine, is because, like many innovations, it came by increments.

Monturiol was the son of a cooper, a technological if not a financial boon. He was a charming and likeable family man, but we never learn how he funded the early years of his submarine project or his political publishing. He was an internationalist (as any thinking scientist must) rather than a Catalan flag-waver, but when local bards acclaimed his invention, he was subsumed into the nationalist myth. As his schemes grew more ambitious, the one-time pacifist was desperate to interest government (Spanish or Catalan): it would balance power at sea and so prevent war.

His end was tragic. His ideas spurned, he retired into hack-work as his children died. Though Monturiol was harmless enough, we are left with a hint of the truth that utopians cause the problems in the world. If only they were all able to steal away in their submarines!

Ultimately, Stewart doesn't make the case that Monturiol was a catalyst of Barcelona's irrepressible modernism rather than just a symptom of it. Cause and effect are clearer in the case of Monturiol's friend, Idlefons Cerdà, who laid out the modern city. What does come through is Stewart's love of the place and the curious characters it throws up. As he says: "Icaria was neither lost nor found, just woven into the fabric of life in Barcelona."

The reviewer's book 'Zoomorphic: New Animal Architecture', is published next month by Laurence King