Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Flashman at the Charge by George Macdonald Fraser

(Book Review)

After reading:

Tom Brown's Schooldays,
Royal Flash, and
Flash for Freedom,

I now come to the 4th book in the Flashman series.

The reason I got into these Flashman books in the first place (as I mentioned in my review of the first Flashman) is because I was interested in "The Great Game" and the 19th Century rivalry between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and Central Asia.

This book returns to that theme, although like the previous books it has Flashman rushing from one danger spot into another, so that it manages to cover a lot of diverse ground. The first third of the book deals with the Crimean War (in which the cold war between Russia and Britain momentarily turned hot), the middle of the book deals with Russia and the serf problem, and then the last 3rd goes South to Central Asia and back into Afghanistan.

As always, Flashman manages to be present at all the great historical battles. And as always, he's present against his will.

The first third of the book, dealing with the Crimean War, is very well researched, very well written, and brings to life many of the historical characters involved in the conflict, from William Howard Russell (The Times correspondent, who Flashman finds slightly annoying) to Frances Duberly (who Flashman is always trying to bed.)

The Crimean War is, viewed through the hindsight of history, a pointless war. (As almost all wars are viewed through hindsight.) Two empires were battling each other for strategic positioning in the East, and for this thousands of men on both sides were asked to throw their lives away.
(Of course that's not how the war was sold to the British public at the time--they were told they were fighting for freedom, and protecting Turkey against unfair aggression.)

Flashman, although a bully and a coward and thoroughly lacking in any redeeming virtues, is oddly enough the perfect narrator to see right through the Victorian hypocrisy. He realizes that, even though he's only ever cared for himself, he has never been guilty of sending off thousands of men to their deaths. In his own way, he figures he is actually less harmful than the army generals obsessed with honour and duty to country.
And the scary thing is that he's right.

The mismanagement which permeated the whole Crimean War has always been symbolically represented in the Charge of the Light Brigade (W) which Flashman manages to find himself dragged into (against his will.)

Like most Americans, I grew up having no idea what "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was, other than it had some connection to some famous poem or something. (My school education had been very American-centric.It could be that my ignorance is unique, but I suspect most other Americans out there are equally clueless.)

A few years ago I came across a BBC radio program explaining the whole thing, which I found quite interesting. (Link here--if you've got a few free minutes you can fill in the gap in your knowledge.)
After listening to that program, I had a basic idea of what had happened, but I still got a bit confused on the finer details of who ordered what when.

This book walks you through the whole disastrous chain of events step by step. And the beauty of a historical novel is that it's much easier to follow the action when it becomes a story. The faceless historical names become characters with personalities.
Fraser faithfully reproduces much of the petty squabbling and personality conflicts that took place among the British officers, and inserts Flashman into the historical narrative very cleverly.
Flashman has a strong dislike of Lord Cardigan, who actually led the charge, partly because of events carried over from the first novel (in which Lord Cardigan had a bit part) and partly because of what happens at the beginning of this one.

After the battle, Flashman is taken into Russia, where among other things he records his observations about how horribly the serfs were treated.

Again, much of this was absent from my historical education. (In traditional history telling, it is perhaps common to over-emphasize the sufferings of sovereigns like Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II, but gloss over the horrors that these old regimes inflicted.)

At times I suspected Fraser was exaggerating how terribly the Russian serfs were treated, but every time I began to question an anecdote, there was a footnote backing up the story with reference to historical sources.

One of Lenin's ancestors appears later in the story agitating on the serf's behalf.
(I'm not sure how much Fraser intended the appearance of Lenin's ancestor to symbolically represent Lenin himself. But the loud, boisterous, rabble-rousing nature of the character seems at odds with my image of Lenin as the careful planner and schemer. I had a similar reaction to Fraser's portrayal of Karl Marx in "Royal Flash." But that's really my only historical criticism of these Flashman books.)

But Fraser does at times seem to be drawing a line between the horrific conditions of the Serfs, and the 1917 revolution. Since the serfs were all freed well in advance of this revolution, it may not be completely fair.

Still, as I read the book I couldn't help but remember Dickens' prophecy from "A Tale of Two Cities" :

Crush humanity out of shape once more . . . and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of . . . oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Dickens had published these words back in 1859. If the Russian government had only paid more attention to this warning, perhaps history would be a lot different.

Also while in Russia, Flashman runs into Harry "Scud" East from "Tom Brown's Schooldays." Having slogged my way through the original source material, it was nice to be rewarded by seeing another character from that book brought into the Flashman world.
In "Tom Brown's Schooldays", East had been Tom Brown's best friend, and the major supporting character in the book after Tom Brown himself. At the end of "Tom Brown's Schooldays," we learn that he is serving in India.
(There is apparently a sequel, "Tom Brown at Oxford," which fleshes out East's career in India more thoroughly, and which Fraser references in his footnotes. However having found the original "Tom Brown's Schooldays" a bit of a chore to get through, I won't be reading the second book anytime soon.)

The Scud East in the first part of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" is someone with an honest heart and noble heart, but has trouble resisting the urge to get into mischief. It might have been more interesting to have this Scud East appear, but Fraser chose instead to portray Scud East the Christian moralist, which is perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity. (We had hints that Scud East and Tom Brown were turning out this way towards the end of the first book, but in my opinion the transformation wasn't completed yet. I don't know what happens in "Tom Brown at Oxford.")

Nevertheless, East's strong sense of duty and self-sacrifice in this book contrast sharply with Flashman, who is only concerned about his own skin, making them the perfect Victorian foils against each other.

When East suggests they risk their lives to save the British Empire, Flashman narrates, "D'you know, when a man talks like that to me, I feel downright insulted. Why other, unnamed lives, or the East India Company's dividend, or the credit of Lord Aberdeen, or the honour of British arms, should be held by me to be of greater consequence than my own shrinking skin, I've always been at a loss to understand."

Flashman and East stumble onto a Russian plan to invade Afghanistan and India and take them from the British.
Once again, this sounds like pure fantasy, but Fraser backs it all up with footnotes, indicating that there really were such plans put forth to the Tsar, and that these proposals really were considered seriously by the Russian government.

Finally, Flashman ends up in Central Asia. Here Fraser digs up long forgotten historical characters for Flashman to interact with, such as Yakub Beg and Izzat Kutebar, who led the local indigenous resistance against the Russian drive South in the 19th century. As with everything else, the story is backed up with footnotes describing the ruthless Russian march South, and the local peoples who were brutally subdued in this campaign.

Flashman finds himself joining the local tribes (and their Chinese allies) and helping them fight against the Russians.
"There are obscure works on Central Asia by anonymous surveyors and military writers," Flashman the narrator says, "and I can look in them and find the names and places--Yabub Beg, Izzat Kutebar and Katti Torah; Buzurg Khan and the Seven Khojas, the Great and Middle Hordes of the Black Sands and the Golden Road, the Sky-blue Wolves of the Hungry Steppe, Sahib Khan and the remarkable girl they called the Silk One. You can trace them all, if you are curious, and learn how in those days they fought the Russians inch by inch from Jaxartes to the Oxus, and if it reads like a mixture of Robin Hood and the Arabian Nights--well, I was there for part of it, and even I look back on it as some kind of frightening fairy-tale come true."
A fascinating Victorian era adventure story, with just the right mix of satire, comedy, and travelogue. Definitely worth checking out.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Obama recycles George W. Bushs plans

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