Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sharpe's Triumph by Bernard Cornwell

As I've noted before, Cornwell's famous Sharpe novels seem to me to exist in a bit of a cultural and historical vacuum. The author provides just enough context and background to make the story work, but no further. In Sharpe's Triumph, for example, we learn that the Brits are now fighting the Mahratta Confederation, which is a conglomeration of Indian states and rulers who have banded together, and who are using some renegade European generals such as the German Pohlmann and the traitorous Englishman General Dodd, to lead their troops. From this set-up all Cornwell's heroes, villains and conflicts spring, and this he does well. But as in Sharpe's Tiger, there seems a curious lack of depth; a fear to look into any of the issues encountered when writing about the early 19th-century British Empire. Once again, neither Sharpe nor the reader gets more than a cursory reason why these mighty forces are opposed to one another.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. The book is still very entertaining, and at heart it's a very well-written action extravaganza, and wants to be nothing more. It's just a shame that Cornwell, who clearly does know his history, and can write epic battle scenes like nobody's business, doesn't put the same care into recreating other aspects of his historical writing.

The book begins with Sharpe surviving a massacre perpetrated by Dodd, who has fled from the British ranks to avoid being punished for murder. It's a great opening that cements Dodd as an intriguing villain (this potential doesn't really come to fruition, but he's still a pretty good character). In the intervening four years since his last adventure, Sharpe's been comfortably stationed at Seringapatan, the former capital of the Tipoo Sultan. Nobody knows that Sharpe himself killed the Tipoo, nor that he still hides the dead king's jewels among his clothes.

Sharpe makes an appearance at the siege of the city of Ahmednuggur, where Dodd's men are stationed alongside the forces of the Mahratta Confederation. Scottish troops storm the walls, led by one Colin Campbell, who will later meet the equally fictitious Flashman(!) during the Sikh wars in the 1840's. Campbell joins Wellington as one of the few real-life people who have met both famous fictional Empire-builders. Meanwhile, Sharpe's nemesis Seargeant Hakeswill, who somehow survived his tiger ordeal at the end of the last book, is still alive and looking to make trouble for our hero...

The best part of the book comes when Sharpe and his mentor McCandless visit the Mahratta troops commanded by the General Pohlmann. Pohlmann takes Sharpe aside and tells him that he could join the Mahrattas and rise up the ranks. For once we get a look inside Sharpe's head as a real human being and not as an action hero as he is tempted by Pohlmann's offer- in the British army, he is cast forever as a low-ranking soldier due to his social class, with no hope of rising up the ranks regardless of ability, while as a traitor in Pohlmann's ranks, he could become a rich, decadent officer within a few years, because the Mahrattas value his skills.

There are some great scenes as Sharpe wrestles with this idea. After all, unlike the right-wing Flashman, Sharpe is an apolitical sword-for-hire who has been scorned by his own establishment and bears no real loyalty towards the British army or the East India Company. Unfortunately, Cornwell declines to use this plot point to critique the morality of the British Empire (I know, it's not that kind of book, but he came so close!), and a conveniently-timed act of treachery of Dodd's causes Sharpe to shelve any idealogical notions and once again side with McCandless and the British.

The book does finish with a tremendous (if exhaustive) description of the battle of Assaye: the battle that made Wellington's youthful career. Nobody else does battles like Cornwell, nobody else can handle the epic amounts of men, animals and troop movements. It's only disappointing that the aforementioned lack of context spoils things somewhat. The fact that we don't really know what's at stake, or what the Mahratta's motivations are, somewhat robs this superb technical exercise of its emotional heart. Nevertheless, it's exciting stuff, and the various plot points associated with the cast of heroes and villains tie together nicely- except of course, those necessary to set up the next book.

Of Irish interest, there is one or two fleeting references to the old sod, including when when a sly Indian fighting for the British asks McCandless about his Irish-bred horse.

'County Meath is in Ireland?' Sevajee asked.

'It is, it is.'

'Another country beneath the British heel?'

'For a man beneath my heel, Sevajee,' the Colonel said, 'you look in remarkably fine fettle. Can we talk about tomorrow? Sharpe, I want you to listen...'

Sigh. So close...

(Incidentally, if you get your hands on the book, please note the grossly misshapen faces of the soldiers on the front cover. At best, they're pulling faces that suggest they've just taken a spoonful of the Tipoo Sultan's elephant dung. At worst, their heads are twisted at an Exorcist-style angle. It's really a horrible painting.)

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