April 17, 2005

Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser

Last month I reviewed The Game, by Laurie R. King; the title is a reference to the "Great Game", a cold war of intrigue and exploration in Central Asia that spanned most of the 19th century and continued into the early years of the 20th. King's book takes place at the very end of the Great Game period, in the years after the first World War. I mentioned in that review Peter Hopkirk's outstanding book The Great Game, and afterwards decided that it was time to re-read it.

And that, let me tell you, opened a largish can of worms.

See, I'm a history buff. And about eight or nine years ago I became interested in 19th century history, and the British Empire in particular--not surprisingly, because you really can't even talk about the 19th century without talking about the British Empire. And I read voraciously on the subject, and one book led to another, and that's how I found The Great Game. And as I was reading it I came to the section on the first Afghan War.

It's like this. During the first half of the 19th century, the Russians were looking for new markets for the products of their nascent factories. They couldn't compete with the British on either price or quality in those markets where the Brits were established; so they looked to Central Asia. Central Asia had other advantages as well; the further Russia expanded, the closer they got to India. And at that time India was the Jewel in the Crown, the source of British power and wealth. The Czar couldn't help salivating over the idea that India might one day be Russia's.

Now, in order to travel overland to India from Russia, by the most direct route, you pretty much need to go through Afghanistan. And it's much easier to do this if the Afghans aren't trying to kill you while you do it. And so the Czar sent a Russian officer ("sent"! what amazing worlds of experience are hidden behind that little word!) to negotiate with Dost Mohammed, who was then the ruler of Afghanistan. The Brits had been trying their best with Dost Mohammed as well, but eventually concluded (foolishly, I think) that he was not to be trusted. And so they sent in an army, fought their way from Herat to Kabul, captured Dost Mohammed, and installed a puppet named Shah Shujah in his place. They felt extremely virtuous about this, because Shah Shujah was, in fact, the "rightful" king of Afghanistan, having been ousted by Dost Mohammed some years before. Trouble is, the Afghanis weren't too happy to have him back, especially the tribemen in the hills. So the Brits left a garrison, and put a couple of idiots in charge: an elderly general named Elphinstone who should have been retired long since, and an exceedingly smart and clever idiot (the worst kind) named Sir William MacNaghten.

OK, there's the situation. The Brits are in Kabul, their leaders there are fools, and the populace is unhappy. Now we can get to Fraser's book.

Harry Flashman, the protagonist (I just can't use the word "hero") of the book, is a bully, a scoundrel, a cad, a coward, a cheat, a drunkard, a toady, and a womanizer. He's the sort of plausible rogue who's smart enough never to show his true colors if he can avoid it, the better to use his acquaintances to his advantage. He can be engaging, it's true--and the next moment commit enormities of the worst kind.

He begins the book by being thrown out of Rugby School for drunkeness, after which he persuades his father to buy him a commission in the Royal Army. An odd choice of career for a coward, but he's careful to choose a regiment that's just home from India, and consequently won't be going anywhere to fight any time soon. But thanks to some missteps of his own he has to leave the regiment and soon finds himself posted to India...where he's assigned duty as an aide to General Elphinstone in Afghanistan.

In short, Fraser gives us an "eye-witness" account of the retreat from Kabul, a fiendish mess that left only a handful of survivors--including, of course, bluff, hearty Harry Flashman.

I don't entirely like reading about Harry Flashman; he's too beastly. But Fraser's an excellent storyteller, and his attention to detail and historical accuracy is first-rate. He's especially skilled, through a careful and judicious use of endnotes, at telling us what really happened while maintaining the conceit that he's simply editing Flashman's own memoirs.

And given that Flashman was "present" at nearly every major 19th century military event from 1842 onward, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the American Civil War, Little Big Horn, and every hot outbreak in the cold war that was The Great Game, Fraser's books are nearly indispensable to anyone wanting to acquire a vivid picture of what it was like. A rather jaundiced and slanted one, no doubt, but vivid and indispensable none the less.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 17, 2005 08:24 PM

Lars Walker said:

I have to admit I love the Flashman books, and I think they helped me come up with my own non-heroic (though far less scoundrelly) narrator, Father Ailill. Sometimes I think Frasier is teaching a larger lesson about how a coward dies a thousand deaths (it's wonderful to see Flashman gibbering in terror through one deadly peril after another), but I'm not sure. I do know I never miss a book.

By the way, Frasier wrote the screenplay for the best movie adaptation of the Three Musketeers, the one with Oliver Reed and Michael York.

Will Duquette said:

Some years ago, after posting some reviews the first time I read the Flashman books, I got some e-mail from another Flashman fan who took exception to my calling old Harry a villain and a rogue. I never quite figured that out.

The awful thing is that Flashman's such a good narrator that I'll find myself rather liking him--and then the next despicable deed is all the more horrifying.

Lars Walker said:

I had a similar experience a while back. I replied that a man who, when riding in a troika across the Russian steppes, chased by Cossacks, throws his mistress (naked and wrapped in a bearskin) out into the snow to distract his pursuers, I feel pretty safe in describing that man as a coward.