Monday, August 6, 2012

Hart of Empire by Saul David


Everybody ready for another trip to 19th-Century Afghanistan? Thought not. Well, we’re going anyway.

How good is Hart of Empire? Well, I’ll tell you this much: I read the last hundred pages of it while marching up a mountain. Granted, I was living on top of the mountain, and the walk up it from town had become more of a regular tramp to me than a breath-taking experience. But, yeah, I was gripped enough that finishing the book became more interesting than taking in the Yorkshire Dales scenery. So that must say something.

But that was a year ago, and things have changed. Surrey is not Yorkshire; in Surrey, there’s always a rich prick (or a housemate) around to snigger at my habit of reading while walking. For whatever reason, I never got around to reviewing the book then, so I’ll review it now, following a recent re-read.

If you’ve ever haunted the historical fiction aisle in bookshops (really? Are you a ghost or something?), you’ll know that there’s something of a cottage industry of book series that ape the whole Flashman/Sharpe thing: books that follow the adventures of a dashing young soldier who takes part (willingly or otherwise) in the various famous battles of his era, which is usually either the Napoleonic or Victorian era. Just off the top of my head, I can name Hornblower, Flashman, Sharpe, Fenwick Travers, Jack Absolute, and now Hart as well as examples of this. Some of these characters are older and more influential, some are clearly very derivative. Those that take after Flashman tend to be tongue-in-cheek, those that take after Sharpe tend to take themselves very seriously.

The lure of an author who loves history to write a series like this is obvious. It’s great fun, and tremendously useful, to have a character who exists at a place in time where they can plausibly (ahem) pop up during events that are themselves fascinating and well-known. Much of the history of Victorian colonialism in particular reads like a (highly racist and bigoted) ripping yarn anyway, so it makes tremendous sense to make fiction out of it. Someday, someone will write a series like this that takes place during some radically different period, and then the floodgates will open. Anyone for the adventures of a dashing young rapscallion who blunders his way through the Pelleponesian wars, pissing off prissy Athenians and getting riotously drunk with crazy Spartans? I’d buy that for a dollar.

For me, these books serve a higher purpose too: they add life to the history. I find that even the best-written history book comes to life just a little bit more when I can relate the events to a fictitious piece of work. History gets so often reduced to lists of names, dates and numbers. It’s great to know exactly who fought who during the Zulu wars, and how many troops they had, but I sure as hell wake up when I suddenly realise that Bromhead was the guy who was played with such uppity magnificence by Michael Caine, or that Cetshwayo was the leader who double-crossed Flashman. Fiction is able to bring character and meaning to the subject in a very different way than real history books. Of course, it also has a certain responsibility to the source material; witness the descendants of Private Hook who were appalled at his portrayal as a coward in the movie Zulu, and loudly made their grievance known to the film company.

Anyway. So, Hart of Empire is a sequel. The first book is Zulu Hart, which I’ve not read. It isn’t supposed to be very good. But the opening chapters of the sequel make a few things clear: George Hart is part Zulu (and part Irish, for those of us still paying attention to such things!), but he passes himself off in English society as being of Mediterranean extraction. He fought in the Zulu War in 1878 and was, rather predictably, involved in the Isandlwana debacle as well as the defence of Rourke’s drift. There are at least a couple of women who are fond of him, and whom it seems will continue to play a part in the series. We also learn that he has a mysterious rich father who has left him a legacy: the young Hart will inherit rather large sums of money if he can rise to a certain rank in the British Army (for God’s sake don’t ask me what rank), earn a Victoria Cross and ‘marry respectably’, all before he turns 28.

Not very good, apparently.

The story begins with Hart being called for interview with several highly-placed Government bigwigs, including Prime Minister D’israeli himself, though he’s referred to as Lord Beaconsfield (as an aside, I recently spotted an Irish bar called the Earl of Beaconsfield in Cambridge recently. I doubt if many people noticed that the half-heartedly painted leprechaun hanging from the door had once been a portrait of D’israeli. In a weird coincidence, Gladstone once called D'israeli a 'soulless leprachaun'). Obviously Hart’s a bit suspicious as to exactly what these stuffed shirts want with a half-dago like himself, but wouldn’t you know it, he’s being blackmailed by the brother of a man he accidentally killed, so he’s willing to listen to what they have to say in case it’ll help him get out of the country. As it happens, it might just: apparently, a mission to Afghanistan is what they have in mind for young Hart, as trouble is brewing there: the kind of trouble that can best be dealt with by an officer who has just the right qualities. An officer who can go undercover because he has just the right look.

As in, HE’S A DARKY.

Half-castes never amount to anything.

D’israeli takes him aside and gives him a pep talk, telling him that they’re both ‘cuckoos in the nest,’ and that as an ethnic Jew, he knows what it’s like to be singled out. They don’t exactly bond over this issue, however, but the prime minister goes ahead anyway and gives him the details of the mission. And why exactly is our man being sent to rumble in the ‘stan?

Apparently not learning their lesson the first time, the British have gone and got themselves embroiled in a second Anglo-Afghan War (they haven’t learned their lesson since either: Britain went to war against Afghanistan, pretty much with disastrous consequences every time except the third, in 1839, 1878, 1919 and 2001). It’s part of what was called the Great Game: the cold war of subterfuge that had been going on between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia as their two empires swallowed up vast tracts of real estate in that region during the 19th century, bringing their borders ever closer together. Afghanistan, being a border state to British India (well, it was once they’d annexed Sind and the Punjab, anyway), occupied a precarious position between these two great enemies. The British had always been keen to keep it as a buffer zone, separating India from the Russian hordes, but the damn Orientals were just so unpredictable: Afghan leaders toppled on and off the throne with alarming regularity, and the country was never as unified as the British would have liked. So naturally they had to step in every so often and tell the Afghans whose rule they should be subject to, though usually not without getting a bloody nose in the process.

 Ever fearful that Ivan is keen to get his grubby mitts on British India, the British become jittery because the Afghan king hsd been consulting with Russian envoys. Ultimatums are given and ignored; redcoats (and khaki coats, for the first time!) march yet again on Kabul as the British military steamroller trundles into the country.

Here we go again...

So far, all this is described pretty much as it really happened. Hart’s particular mission hinges on a small fictional device of the author’s: that a fanatical religious leader, Mulah Mushk-I-Alam, has taken possession of an item rumoured to be the cloak of Mohammed (a real artifact that was in Kabul at the time) and intends to use it to stir up holy war. If he does, the Indian government will doubtlessly use this as an excuse to annex all of Afghanistan as part of their aggressive ‘forward policy’ against the Russians in Central Asia.

But London and Calcutta don’t see eye-to-eye on this. London has no wish to find themselves master of yet more untold miles of savage terrain and even more savage, pissed-off tribesmen, so they aim to deprive Calcutta and the Indian Government of this excuse. Hart’s job is to reclaim the cloak before holy war breaks out.

(While the intrigue between the two governments makes for an interesting plot, this point becomes more and more stretched as the book goes on. As the war against the British becomes more and more intense and widespread, the reasons for Hart to track down the cloak and complete his mission become more and more obtuse. I mean, when all hell is already breaking out all over the country, does the Indian Government really need the excuse of jihad to annex Afghanistan?)

Hart agrees, and gets shipped off to British India, and from there he makes his way to Afghanistan. Along the way, he picks up a (yawn) proud, brave, earthy Klingon Pathan warrior, Ilderim Khan, to assist him and become his bodyguard and sidekick (Ilderim’s a likeable character, but he’s such a stock ‘proud warrior race’ character that I had trouble not visualising him as a Jaxn’trep from Run Like Hell. How’s that for an oblique reference?). They have a few adventures on the way before arriving at Kabul and meeting Yakub Khan, the cowardly Emir of Afghanistan. The Khan proves indecisive during a riot by his own troops, and Hart’s attention soon turns to Yakub’s hot (and sadly fictional) sister, who, he reckons, would totally make a better ruler, if only the Afghans would get over their inherent sexism. And if he gets to bone her along the way, that would be just dandy. And so the stage is set for scrapes and thrills aplenty.

Don't google-image search 'Jaxn'trep, unless you're a fan of Rule 34.

This is not my first encounter with author Saul David: before writing fiction he wrote history books, and I once struggled through his Victoria’s Wars, despite my obsession with the subject. I found it a snooze-worthy collection of boring troop manouvers and colourless, indistinguishable battles. Nobody should go near the book who isn’t well-extensively versed in military terminology. His mammoth book on the Indian Mutiny too glowers at me from my bookshelf, daring me to give it a go, though at the moment I’d rather be held under siege by marauding Pathans. Happily, I found his fiction a far more pleasing way to digest his undoubted expert historical knowledge. Predictably, David has been quoted as saying that his interest in Imperial history was sparked by a reading of Flashman as a young man.

Compared to that earlier book, this is definitely a case of an author writing historical characters that have worldviews way too modern for their supposed period. Hart is such a lefty that he’d have had no place in the Victorian military system. He’s all in favour of independence for small nations, and is far more respectful to the Afghans than even the Orientalist travellers and explorers like Burnes and Burton were in real life. He’s also well into his women’s lib. It must be impossible in this day and age to write realistic characters from an age that had mores which are now considered offensive.

Now Hart is clearly the latest of many characters to have been inspired by Flashman, but with the Afghanistan setting, David is clearly setting himself up for a rather explicit comparison. The Afgan war of this book was, in real life, the sequel to the First Afghan war that was the setting for the first Flashman book. Many of the settings, buildings and military engagements are identical, and the exercise often feels like a bit of a re-tread (as it may have to some of the soldiers involved) though with a slightly different tone. I think it’s a compliment to say that David’s book doesn’t come off as being truly awful compared to Flashman, though it’s nowhere bear as good. It’s well written enough that I enjoyed it as a tour through an unfamiliar bit of military history. But while it jettisons the humour and right-wing attitude of Fraser’s book, it doesn’t really replace it with anything unique that is strong enough to stand out from the crowd. Little is made of the character’s mixed-race, apart from his useful ability to pass as a native. The more left-wing tendencies of the book seem a somewhat wishy-washy comeback against Flash Harry’s pro-empire worldview, and also seem frequently out of place in this time period. Flashman definitely gained something by being published back when more offensive attitudes could be included in popular fiction.

All the same, I enjoyed the book and will pick up the next one in the series, if David ever cranks one out. He’s covering a later period in Imperial history than the majority of the Flashman books, so I’d be definitely interested in seeing his take on the African wars of the 1880s and 1890s. By all accounts Hart of Empire is a vast improvement over Zulu Hart, so perhaps David will be able to nab that elusive something that will make Hart less bland.

Come and take me, Brits - if you think you're hard enough. Wait.. actually, no. I've had enough.

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