Sunday, November 8, 2009
Flashman and the Mountain of Light
The British Empire- as some wit once said (probably a Belgian, too)- was acquired in a sort of ‘fit of absence of mind’. In this volume of old Flash’s adventures, G. M. Fraser shows his distain for this particular myth, and attempts to educate the reader (by way of Edgar Rice Burroughs) as to the real state of affairs in many of the Indian native states before they were ‘invited’ into the civilizing embrace of the British. Dipping once again into his well-thumbed volume of ‘Queen Victoria’s Little Wars’, Fraser comes out with an almost forgotten campaign to chronicle- the Anglo-Sikh War of 1845.
As the novel begins, the Punjab is in a state of unrest. Incompetent leaders shamble drunkenly on and off the throne as their own relations scheme against them. The Khalsa- the living embodiment of the Sikh nation and the most powerful, well-trained native army East of Suez, is spoiling for a fight, with its beady eye on the power-hungry East India Company to the south. And into this hellish situation is thrust one Harry Flashman. The table is set for a rare feast of literary delights.
As usual for late-period (though chronologically early: why doesn’t Flashman remember meeting John Nickelson again in 1857?) Flashman, there’s a political point to be made. See, in this case the British don’t want to own the Punjab. In fact, it’s useful to them as a buffer state against the hostile Mohammadan hordes of Afghanistan. It’s just that the damn Sikhs, being Oriental and all, can’t keep their affairs in order. Their rulers are so corrupt and debauched, with endless drinking and rutting going on at the Lahore durbar (court) that the country is about to tear itself apart. It all sounds rather jolly to Flashman of course, until he hears about the wanton cruelty of the ravishing Maharani. Yep, the Orientalism factor here is high enough to make Edward Said snap his hookah in half with anger. Oriental rulers are, by and large, barbarous, decadent and sensous; with Fraser’s famous historical accuracy, it's difficult to know how much of this is true and how much is Imperialist bilge. Many of the excesses of the native Indian state rulers were absolutely mind-boggling-witness the recent Victoria & Albert exhibition of Nabob finery. Regular parades, with elephants bedecked with jewels as big as your head, were the order of the day- and this at a time when most Indians were lucky if they could afford a nice patch of dirt to burn their wives on, as Flashman might have put it.
So eventually the British have to step in and sort all this out. How will it end?
Now while almost every Flashman book serves up a delightful curry of exotic thrills, Mountain of Light does a particularly sterling job of keeping historical accuracy and Fraser’s political commentary firmly within the boundaries of telling a rip-roaring good story. ‘Like a page out of Burton’s Arabian Nights’, says Flash frequently as he languishes next to dusky maidens in moonlit pleasure gardens, or clashes steel with blackguards and badmashes in a Lahore dungeon. Of course, he’s referring to the lavasciously-illustrated versions you could only get on the continent (that Burton, eh? Chap had a touch of the Flashman himself, I’d say). And the rub is that it was all- more or less- real. Palaces, beauties, dungeons, back-stabbing Viziers- it’s all in the history books. As if to make this point clear, Fraser includes Dr Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner (and comes close, by association, to including the incredible Joseph Wolff), both adventurers whose real-life careers were, if anything, more incredible that Flashman’s own. Sometimes the reader’s just gotta be reminded how strange truth is before (s)he’ll accept the fiction.
Though all the usual treats are present and correct, including Frasier’s ability to make the events of the past seem alive and real (they were, you know), Mountain of Light reads like the most fantastic adventure story ever concocted. In fact, when he hits this kind of magic equilibrium, his writing provides the kind of thrills that Edgar Rice Burroughs fails to provide for anyone above the age of 14 (I was intensely let down by Burroughs when I finally read him. Can you tell?).
No, it isn’t just the sex, juvenile and Flemming-ish as it is. There’s more to being ‘adult’ than that, I hope. Mountain of Light is simply an adventure story that functions on a higher level- it takes the basic framework of a Burroughs novel, but adds great writing, emotion, historical interest, politics and fully-rounded characters. There’s no reason why anyone who was intensely affected by John Carter of Mars or The Lost World as a teenager shouldn’t be able to get the same thrill as an adult, but the writing must rise to the occasion. Flashman and the Mountain of Light is the answer to this conundrum, and is simply one of the most enjoyable entries in the series.