Thursday, February 21, 2013

Zulu Hart (2009) by Saul David

So apparently history writer Saul David once met with George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the immortal Flashman, and asked him if he was ever going to get around to writing about Flashy’s hinted-at adventures in the Zulu wars of the 1870s. Fraser said he wouldn’t, which is not quite true, as there’s a short story in Flashman and the Tiger which places some of its narrative during this period. But this story is a far cry from Fraser’s usual novel-length examinations of 19th-century conflicts, and upon the old curdudgeon's death, David decided that it was time someone else took up the baton.

And who better than himself? Already a respected historian, David had even written factual history books about the Zulu wars. He was a big fan of Fraser too; it should have been a match made in heaven.

I’ve already reviewed the second book in the series, which I quite enjoyed, so when I found a copy of Zulu Hart in my favourite second-hand bookshop during a trip to my old Yorkshire haunts, I couldn’t resist picking it up. I knew that it was considered to be a bit rubbish, but I was still keen to get a non-Michael-Caine fictional insight into the Zulu Wars. And with a scholar of that very subject as my guide, how could it go wrong?

The first part of Zulu Hart is concerned with the background and early military career of its hero, George Hart. Hart is of mixed race, with an Irish-Zulu mother (yeah, I know. It’s a bit of a stretch and the narrative doesn’t really make it any more believable) and a mysterious unknown father who we’re told is a ‘pillar of the establishment.’ His father has left Hart with a legacy: if he rises quickly through the ranks of the army, finds himself a respectable wife and earns the Victoria Cross before he’s 28, he’ll get a shedload of money. All of these things seem quite distant to Hart as the book begins.

We follow him through Harrow School and into the military. His dusky looks means that he tends to pass as a man of Mediterranean background, which is lucky for a guy trying to make his way through race-obsessed Victorian society. Eventually, he’s shanghaied in classic Flashman fashion into leaving the country by a vindictive military superior and his willing, beautiful accomplice. He travels to South Africa, hoping to strike lucky in the gold fields at Kimberley. Instead, he finds himself sucked into the building war between the British and the Zulus.

In terms of writing style, Zulu Hart is pretty pedestrian; breezy and inoffensive but without much description of places or buildings, which sometimes robs it of the niceties of historical fiction. The feeling of exploring a different world – surely one of the reasons that we enjoy historical fiction – is somewhat absent.

This is also true of the dialogue and character relationships. Neither Victorian London, nor colonial South Africa nor Zululand really come alive as distinctive, different societies in the book. Compared to the Flashman books, or even to the work of James Clavell, the reader doesn’t get the feeling that they’re stepping into a world different from their own.

This is a problem inherent with historical fiction: while the writer desires to reconstruct the past, with its different modes of thought, norms and acceptabilities, they’re still writing for a contemporary audience, and this audience must be given a world that they can somehow relate to, and protagonists that they can sympathise with. Therefore, the writer almost always ends up washing down or whitewashing certain aspects of the past. I find it hard to believe that many readers would empathise with a truly historically-accurately written medieval or even Victorian hero. Their priorities and morals are so wildly different from ours that we would doubtlessly find the former ignorant, superstitious and overly-religious, and the latter racist and jingoistic. Of course, that is not to say that all medieval people were incapable of rational thought (though ideas about what we know as the scientific method simply did not exist yet) or that all Victorians were unenlightened about race. But what historical novelists often have to do, if they don’t simply wish to write about modern people in period dressing, is to make their protagonists be untypical of their era in order not make them not repugnant to us. Think of William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: his use of an Occam’s razor-like proto scientific method, as well as his almost hereticaly liberal views on God’s place in the universe, would have put him in the extreme intellectual minority during the period in which the novel takes place. Though I understand why it’s necessary, I’ve always found it strange how we are drawn to past times, but can only explore them through protagonists who are not representative of these times.

Even before he learns about his true ancestry, George Hart’s views on the subject peoples of the British Empire would have marked him as an oddball in Victorian society. David is not an Imperial apologist writing in the pre-PC 1970s as Fraser was, and so the Victorian world he presents feels slightly whitewashed. Even the antagonist characters are not particularly racist: the war is treated as an excuse for a land-grab, and the more complex Victorian attitudes about race go unexamined. A pity, especially given George’s own background. His character could have been interesting way to explore these issues. But any potential for this is stymied as George spends most of the novel pretending to be of Maltese extraction, and whenever he does reveal his ancestry, usually to his superiors, they generally react with a somewhat unrealistic level of sympathy.

Lieutenant Bromhead: What's that you say, old boy?
You're a darky? Why, how spiffing!
 Hart himself does have a mid-novel flip-flop between sympathising with the Zulus and accepting the British line that they’re barbaric. At first he romanticises them in the ‘noble savage’ mould, but after spending some time at their capital he witnesses their cruelty and warmongering, and briefly comes to believe that the British are right to destroy their way of life. It’s an interesting storyline, but not one that really goes anywhere after being introduced. We don’t really get any insight into thir society, despite our main character being related to them and being able to speak the language.

David also seems to have squandered some of his knowledge of Victorian military protocol: Hart talks back to his superiors in a way that probably would have ended the career of someone so junior, and he hobnobs and advises high-ranking officers who would not have listened to him in real life. While Flashman’s meeting of every famous historical figure was played tongue-in-cheek, there’s nothing here that stops the reader from noticing the improbability of Hart’s adventures. I am also left with a slightly sickly feeling that David is twisting real characters to make villains for his novel... several of the commanders behave in a rather stereotypically evil moustach-twirling way as they plan the war against Zululand. I'm no expert on the subject, but I doubt things were quite as simple as this.

The climax of the novel involves the two most famous military engagements of the war, the battle of Isandlewana (dramatized in the not-so-famous movie Zulu Dawn) and the battle of Rourke’s Drift (dramatised in the more-famous movie Zulu). Unfortunately, both battles are confusing and somewhat dull. I find it difficult to explain what makes battle sequences work in novels; I suspect it’s really more to do with the build-up and the sense of anticipation; the sense of knowing what the participants are fighting for and what the stakes are. For whatever reason, it doesn’t work here.

Zulu: Four years of blogging, and still no review!
 Ultimately, Zulu Hart is a mechanically sound, if plodding and unremarkable, trundle through what will always be an interesting subject. It isn’t the best introduction to 19th-century history, or historical fiction, but if you like either then you’ll probably find something to enjoy. Some of the background about the colonisation of South Africa and the various states that existed there in the 1870s is interesting. But really, you’re better off with the sequel, Hart of Empire, in which David shows that he’s learned a few things about his craft since the first book.

Yes, I wear this at work sometimes.

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