Sunday, May 02, 2010

Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser

(Book Review)

A few months back, when I was reading the biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice, I became very interested in the history of the British Empire in Afghanistan and "The Great Game."

I was talking about it with a British friend back in Japan, and he at once recommended the "Flashman books".

"They're absolutely hilarious," he said. "And you learn a learn a lot of history from them."

He then proceeded to tell me the idea behind the series. "He's a coward and a scoundral, but somehow he always ends up getting the reputation of a hero. The books are written from the perspective of the 80 year old Flashman, who is trying to set the record straight on what really happened.
"Plus, the books are very well researched, so you learn a lot of history from them as well."

I had never even heard of these books before. (I'm not sure if that's just my ignorance, or if they're less popular in North America. Has anyone else read or heard of this series?) But, this was definitely enough to pique my interest.

Also, as often happens when you learn about something new, I found that once these books had been put on my radar screen, I began to notice references to them all over the place. Christopher Hitchens, in one of his clips on youtube, made a passing reference to this series. John Updike and Terry Prattchett, it turns out, are both big fans.

So, eventually I decided to check it out. Since this book is light and easy to read, I've been using it as a way to relax in the evening while doing graduate school.

It is, if nothing else, a very pleasant way to learn history.

I have long -- been-- a-- fan-- of -- historical-- novels as an easy and exciting way to learn history.

But, if the pleasure of learning history is increased by making it into a novel, then that pleasure is doubled by making it into a comical novel.

The humour of this book (how the scoundral Flashman keeps ending up a hero) is more an ironical humor than it is a-laugh-out-loud punchline every page type humor. But it should be enough to at least put a hint of a smile at the corners of your mouth as you read.
Personally my favorite parts were the descriptions of Flashman whining and crying when he was forced to defend a fort against an Afghan attack.

The history of the period is also quite cleverly woven in with the story. Although Flashman himself is purely fictional, he interacts with many historical figures and, Forest Gump like, somehow manages to always be present at all the key points in history (mostly against his will). He is present at the assassinations of some of the leading British political officers in Afghanistan, as well as many of the key battles.

As any good historical novel does, this takes a complex history and makes it understandable. When I first started reading about the British in Afghanistan, I very quickly became confused about the rival warlords and tribes. But when they all become characters in a novel, it's much easier to remember who is who.

In fact this little books is so chock full of historical figures and events that, if you're already addicted to wikipedia as I am, it's hard to resist the temptation to keep looking up people as you read through the book--Something that probably was less of an issue when this book was first published in 1969, but oh how times have changed.

Something else which has changed since the book's original publication is its relevance to current events. Now that our own army is bogged down in Afghanistan, attempting to do what the British and the Russian armies have failed to do, the lessons of history are perhaps again becoming relevant.

Update:
I was reading some of the reviews for this book on amazon.com (A). Most of the negative reviews focused on Flashman's treatment of women. Specifically there's a scene in this book where he rapes a woman. The actual rape itself is more implied than shown, but this was obviously enough to turn some people off from the book.
This made me wonder if perhaps I was a little bit too kind to this book in my initial review. Should I have been harder on this book for being insensitive to women?
Of course the whole premise of this book is that Flashman is a scoundrel, so nothing Flashman does is meant to be good. And the book sort of justifies itself by having the woman later get the upper-hand on Flashman. But maybe a line is crossed nonetheless?
I wish the author would have left the rape out of the book personally, but I still liked the book as a whole anyway.
But at any rate, a caveat should definitely be attached to my recommendation.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on class in America