Monday, September 11, 2006

Through a series of impulsive decisions not distinguishable from mere whimsy, I found myself reading two adventure novels set in the Victorian period narrated by self-professed cowards, Flashman by a twentieth-century Scotsman named Fraser, and King Solomon's Mines by an actual Victorian, H. Rider Haggard. I'd been recommended the Flashman books repeatedly by folks on the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list and by Fred Ramsey, so I don't suppose that would be too unexpected a turn, though my perusal occurred solely because I passed by the book on the shelves at Schlow Libary while looking for the last volume of an eight-volume fantasy series by another Scotsman, Dave Duncan, of which I had in my personal collection the first seven, having somewhere through my travels since graduation misplaced said eighth volume into the darkening depths of oblivion. The Haggard novel, on the other hand, I came across the other weekend, while amusing myself by trawling through the "antique mall" over on High Street, the entrance of which I've passed on a almost daily basis these last six years, but never had until that day entered. That establishment calls itself a "mall" instead of the usual claim of "store" or "shop" based on the owner's habit of renting out (or lending, or extending on credit - I'm not exactly sure of the contractual details or the practicalities for that matter) segments of that vast and sprawling laybrinth, extending throughout portions of if not the whole volume entire, of three buildings between the Curtin Mansion and Petrikin Hall, to individuals or consortiums of individuals looking to sell curios, antiques, and the scrapings of their deceased relatives' domiciles. Said book has on its front leaf a plate indicating that it once belonged to the holdings of a public library in Erie, Pennsylvania, and I am not sure if it was stolen from that institution, or merely sold off & not properly voided in the transaction.

The comparison of these two views of the period from the view-point of fictive "cowards" is rather instructive. The protagonist and primary narrator of the Flashman Papers novels is one Harry Flashman, a villain from Tom Brown's Days, supposedly gone on to enjoy a great and grand career as one of the most-decorated of Victorian heroes, in truth a base poltroon & moral monster, turned honest solely in his final memoirs, allegedly reproduced in the novels. King Solomon's Mines, on the other hand, is a narrative allegedly recorded by that book's protagonist, big game hunter Allan Quatermain of the Natal Province of South Africa, for the edification of his son, a much more direct and yet less likely conceit - for what man would repeatedly proclaim in a memoir intended for the eyes of his progeny his self-described cowardice? The answer, most likely, is that we're intended to accept that the narrator and alleged author is professing a sort of self-effacing falsehood for the purposes of, indeed, false modesty. At points during the reading of Flashman, one is inclined to suspect something of the same sort, having been hammered repeatedly about the head and shoulders by the narrator of his self-declared worthlessness and cowardice, until one turns contrary and querulous through a sort of combative perversity, but in the end, the comedic effect of this is too overwhelming for such heroic doubts to survive intact. If the pretended coward of King Solomon's Mines is more of a liar than poltroon, the protagonist of Flashman is a plain-dealing villain, and his lies in his would-be memoir more for effect than against the substance so stated - Flashman is, indeed, a coward.

Though both books are striking in their picaresque effect of exoticism, King Solomon's Mines in its fantastic re-design of Zululand as the mythical Kukuanaland, Flashman for its of reproduction of the setting and events of the First Afghan War, the purposes of their authors, of course, could not have been more diametrically opposed. Haggard had set out to write a simple lost-world adventure, without serious satiric intent. Fraser, on the other hand, intended nothing if not satire, and a nihilistic assault upon the figure of the Victorian heroic figure itself, in all its self-effacing glory, while he was at it. He was writing in the Sixties, in post-colonial Britain. It's not at all surprising that a writer of that time and place would want to tear down the intellectual and literary memories of the Victorians, obliterate those elements and personages and ideas which supported colonialism - discredit the morals and virtues which made the Empire possible, and justified it. After all, if those were allowed to stand, then they would continue to embarrass those descendants who had let the Empire lapse, had wasted their patrimony. It was not merely necessary to critique the Victorian project - see Orwell's Burmese Days - it was necessary to *destroy* it. The author of Flashman, taking seriously that old saw about Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton, went back to the very roots of Victorianism, resurrecting a minor prep-school villain, proposes to drag him through every heroic moment of the period, rendering each one as un-heroic as mud in the process.

One thing that stood out, since I'm sensitive to such things, is the two books' usage of the word "nigger". [ugh] The narrator of King Solomon's Mines, written in 1885, uses that word exactly once in the introduction, then immediately discards it as unworthy, observing that he'd known natives who'd better deserved the designation "gentleman" than many an Englishman. The word "kaffir" is used throughout the text, and though I'm not exactly sure that this is much of an improvement over that prior epithet, given its current racist associations with Afrikaans and the memory of apartheid, it couldn't have been as offensive to Victorian ears as it is now, at least to me. Indeed, most of the cast of the novel are "kaffirs", including many if not the majority of the characters with demonstrated agency & importance in the novel. Not that I'm saying that the book doesn't display a certain half-blind patriarchal paternalism, but it's not a virulent or vicious sort of bigotry, being rather similar to the tone of many space operas which clearly descend from this exact book, via Edgar Rice Burroughs and many lesser immitators.

Flashman, on the other hand, is absolutely rife with the "n-word". There are few pages, once the narrator arrives in India, which is not disgraced by that epithet. Repeatedly. With contempt & intent. Mind you, as an American, in my mind that word doesn't apply in the way used by the author & narrator, that is, the British usage, synonymous with "wog" or "native", only more offensive. But that's the intention, I suppose - the point being how inhuman the narrator and his peers considered the Indians, Afghans, and other native inhabitants upon which they proposed to impose Empire, absent-mindedly or otherwise. The distinction, in the end, between the usages of the two authors, boils down to intent. Haggard's primary intention was exoticism and entertainment. Fraser's intent seems more nakedly didactic, if clothed in the fashion of humor and satire.

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