Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell

‘You like Flashman, right?’
‘Yeah. Love Flashman.’
‘Oh, man, you’ve gotta try Sharpe so.’
Fine so. I finally have tried Sharpe. And, while entertaining, I find myself agreeing with the Flashman fan who noted that Sharpe is ‘too straight an arrow by half.’

Bernard Cornwell and his fictional Napoleon-era soldier Richard Sharpe have a lot of fans out there- Sharpie’s probably one of the biggest names in British Empire military-themed historical fiction, only partly as a result of the popular tv adaptation starring Sean Bean. It’s really a bit of a surprise he hasn’t crossed my path before- probably as a result of my lack of interest in the Napoleonic Wars.
But despite the slight age difference, the parallels to Flashy are unavoidable- Sharpe is a British soldier who works his way up to a high rank, and has a long career around the globe, appearing in many of the famous military escapades of his time (including Waterloo).
I picked up Sharpe’s Tiger because I found it for two pounds in a shop in Yorkshire, but also because it featured Sharpe’s early adventures in India, which seemed more interesting to me than his later Europe-based adventures. It’s actually chronologically the first book in the series, though not the first one written.
Sharpe begins the book as a private, having signed up for the army following a scuffle at home. He’s a rough Lancashire lad with a troubled background; he spent some time stealing luggage from stagecoaches, eventually killing a man over a fight with a woman.
In the army, he becomes part of the slow British take-over of India. Come 1799, the redcoats are struggling against the mighty Tippu Sultan in what we now know as the fourth Anglo-Mysore war. The Tippu, a Muslim of Persian background, has come into control of the largely Hindu city-state of Mysore in the south of India. The French, always eager to see the British thwarted, have sent an adviser to aid the Tippu. And there is an Irish connection here: the last British leader to have taken a swipe at the Tippu prior to this was Lord Cornwallis, the same guy who surrendered to the Yanks at Yorktown and put down the 1798 rebellion on the Emerald Isle (I'm not a big fan of him, so).
During preparations for the siege of Seringapatam, Sharpe earns the ire of one Sergeant Obediah Hawkeswill, a tyrannical officer who goads Sharpie into assaulting him. A flogging follows, cut short only by the news that a senior British officer carrying sensitive information has fallen into enemy hands. Someone is needed to pose as a deserter and join the Tippu’s forces to rescue the man- is Sharpe up for the job? Already thinking of deserting for real, Sharpie volunteers, but is dismayed to find that he’s going to paired for this perilous mission with Lieutenant Lawless, an upper-class officer who has to also pose as an unruly deserter.
So begins the book. Later, there’s adventures, rescues and spills aplenty in the Tippu’s city as Sharp faces off against tiger-striped Mysore soldiers, a team of professional torturers, and even an actual tiger. It’s all pretty entertaining stuff.
Aspects of the novel are great- the play between Lawless, a decent but slightly effete man who needs to convince as a ruffian, and Sharpe, who’s the real deal, are among my favourite parts. It gives a glimpse into the injustices of the British class system of the time. Other small touches I liked include the French adviser’s shock at how the British army recruits and treats their troops- in France at that time, soldiering even at a private level was considered an honourable and respectable position, and officers often mingled with their troops. Hawkeswill too is a flat if hateful villain, sure to have the reader hissing from his first appearance.
So it’s an enjoyable adventure with some nice period touches. But compared to Flashman?
For starters, the history quite often simply isn’t there. Sharpe, as an uneducated private plucked from the gutter, doesn’t particularly care why the British army are in India fighting against the Tippu, and the reader doesn’t find out much about this issue either. In a Flashman book, the hero would have ended up learning much about the Tippu's point of view and coming to understand (if not appreciate) his culture, but here this fascinating historical figure is reduced to a generic villain. Late in the book, there is a very brief discussion about how trade is the main reason that the Brits, the Frogs and the Tippu have come to blows, but this interesting tidbit is kept tantalizingly brief. Throughout, other interesting topics are brought up and then discarded (such as the place of religion in the various characters’ lives) as though the narrative is afraid to look any further beneath the surface of what is essentially an action-adventure novel. Which is fine, but it could have been much more. In total, what we have here is a British Empire-themed novel that is not really interested in addressing any of the issues raised by the day-to-day realities of the British Empire. Compared to Flashy’s satirically scathing commentary on just about every aspect of Victorian life, it just won’t wash.
The writing is solid and occasionally striking, but it often retains an unremarkable airport-novel style that’s pretty bland and lacking the character of Fraser’s work.
As for Sharpe himself, he is somewhat more interesting than most thriller heroes. His rough background and pragmatism sometimes cause him to do shocking things- in order to prove his ‘loyalty’ to the Tippu, he is fully prepared to assassinate British officers if necessary. And the glibness with which he accepts that he’s been dumped by his up-to-then sweetheart is a bit shocking too. He’s angry at how the world has treated him because of his lowly birth. But by and large, he’s a far more conventional hero than Flashy. Which is to be expected, really.
Perhaps comparing the two isn’t fair. But the Sharpe novels were begun a few years after the original Flashman books, and were surely influenced in some way by them, so in that regard it’s a little disappointing to find them a similar idea carried out far, far more conventionally. The end result: Flashy would totally take Sharpe (probably by throwing sand in his eye and rogering his woman, too, the coward).

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