Friday, February 14, 2014

Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser

Why I Read This Book/Connections with Flashman
          I read this book because it is a tie-in to the Flashman series
.           In addition to the 12 official books ofthe Flashman series, George MacDonald Fraser wrote two more tie-in books: one is Mr American, in which Flashman is a supporting character (which I read previously) and the other is Black Ajax.
            Black Ajax takes place in the early 1800s, which is a few years before Flashman’s time.  (The first Flashman book  takes place in the 1840s.)  But Flashman’s father, Captain Buckley (“Mad Buck”) Flashman is one of the main characters. (And, since the whole story is told in the form of interviews looking back in time from a later perspective, a few brief references are made to the younger Flashman himself.)

The Plot
          Although historical fiction, this novel is based on a true story.  George MacDonald Fraser has rescued from the historical archives the strange but fascinating story of Tom Molineaux (W), a black American ex-slave who became a famous boxer in England during the Napoleonic Wars.
            The story is told in the form of interviews with a number of witnesses, some real (Paddington Jones (W) and Bill Richmond (W)) and some fictional (Buckley Flashman).

The Review
          This is the 14th book I’ve read by George MacDonald Fraser, so I guess it should come as no surprise that I find his prose highly readable.  And that’s the case here as well.  I found this book very readable, and George MacDonald Fraser’s storytelling abilities to be as engrossing as usual.
            The fact that I wasn’t interested in the subject matter of the book—I have absolutely no interest in boxing— was a minor impediment, but the story is well-told enough that you don’t really have to be a sports fan.

            Enjoyability of the book aside, there are 3 areas of the book that caught my attention
1) Boxing and British culture
2) Regency Britain
3) and George MacDonald Fraser’s handling of slavery and racism.

            I’ll deal with these in order. First
Boxing and British Culture
            I don’t know a lot about boxing.  A few years ago, I thought that boxing was an American sport.  After all, all the boxing greats are always Americans, right?
            But apparently boxing is primarily a properly British institution. At least according to George MacDonald Fraser.
            Actually this idea has popped up a few times before in my reading list.  It was a major plot point of Royal Flash (both the book and the movie) that the German Otto Von Bismarck can not appreciate the British sport of boxing, and has to be taught a painful lesson by a British boxer in order to acknowledge the level of skill involved.
            In Twenty Years After, the French author Alexandre Dumas also describes the British fascination with boxing.  After the Musketeers demonstrate their talent in boxing in London, they are acclaimed by the English mob. 
            Dumas, who was writing in the 1840s but describing the 1640s, may have been committing an anachronism here.  Or not—I don’t know.  (How far back does the history of boxing culture in Britain go?) But at any rate, by the 1840s boxing was apparently regarded as a well established part of British culture on the continent.

            In this book, one of the major themes George MacDonald Fraser wants to emphasize is how important boxing was to the British during the Napoleonic Wars:
            As Buckley Flashman says:
            The war had much to do with that [the popularity of boxing], you know. Well ‘twas natural enough to compare the mills [boxing matches] with the sterner battles abroad and see in the pugs the sterner stuff that had held the French at bay so many years. I remember Clarence, our late king, holding forth for the hundredth time about the set-to between Gully and Pearce, which fell in the same month as Trafalgar.
            “Was not one an echo of t’other?” says he. “Damme, I say it was! Could anyone doubt, who saw those two noble fellows at blows, that we were better men than the French or the Spaniards or the dam’ Danes an’ the rest o’ that continental rabble? No, sir! Why sir? ‘Cos we learn from our cradle to fight like men, not like back-stabbin’ dagoes or throat-slittin’ Frogs. They have their stilettos, we have our fists. We fight clean, sir, an’ hard, an’ don’t cry quits while we can stand on our feet! Why, sir? ‘Cos we’re Englishmen, an’ boxin’s our game, an’ makes us what we are, an’ be damned to ‘em!” (p. 63-64).

            One of the themes of this book is that what is remembered in history books isn’t necessarily what the people of the time were concerned with.  History remembers the early 1800s as the time of the madness of King George, and the Napoleonic Wars.  But people in England were obsessed with the scandals of the fashionable set, and the boxing matches.  George MacDonald Fraser (through his characters) asserts that people of the time were more concerned about the outcome of the boxing matches in England than about the war in Europe.

            It’s an interesting little piece of cultural history, that even a non-sports fan like me can appreciate.
            As interesting as all this is, however, I’m still not a fan of boxing.  If two men are in a boxing ring, and I don’t know either of them, I really don’t care which one of them beats the other senseless.  And the idea of two men beating each other senseless for the amusement of the spectators revolts me.
            This was especially true back in the 1800s, when the boxing match would last for a (seemingly) unlimited number of rounds.  When describing the fight between Tom Molineaux and Tom Cribb, George MacDonald Fraser details a fight that went on for 34 rounds, fifty-five minutes, and which wrecked the bodies of both men.  And I’m thinking: “This is just cruel!   Why not just stop the fight after 3 rounds and 15 minutes?”

            It’s difficult to tell exactly where George MacDonald Fraser stands on the issue.  On the one hand, he gives in graphic detail the brutality of the boxing matches.  On the other hand, he (or at least his characters) spend a lot of time praising the skill and science of boxing.
            I suppose this is the sign of a good author—he’s skilled enough to leave some ambiguity about the subject and let the reader make their own decisions.

Regency Britain
          This ties in a bit with the above section, but one of the delights of reading any of George MacDonald Fraser’s books is the historical details and digressions he gives on any story he is telling.
            And so, although this story is nominally about the boxer Tom Molineaux, Fraser also uses the story as a launching point for various digressions on English culture. 
            This is especially true in the interviews with Buckley Flashman, who seems to share his son’s habit of going on long digressions, much to the annoyance of his interviewer.  After the interviewers asks Buckley Flashman about Tom Molineaux, Flashman instead goes off for several pages describing society in Regency Britain, until he is finally pressed by his interviewer to return to the subject, at which point Flashman exclaims:
            What’s this to do with Molineaux? Why, to impress upon you what a light-minded crew of sensation-seekers Society was, ripe for any novelty—female, criminal or sporting for choice—and because it pleases me to hold forth at length while sampling this excellent drop o’ short. So don’t dam’ well interrupt. We’ll come to the Dusky Miller presently.
            Speaking of sport, there was a mighty stink at Newmarket about that time….

            ….And it’s another 10 pages before Flashman gets around to finally talking about Tom Molineaux.
            If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s all fascinating period detail.
            Buckley Flashman advances the theory that the reason Victorian Britain was so uptight in its morals, and Regency Britain was so loose in its morals, was all because of the examples that the respective monarchs set for their subjects.
            As Buckley Flashman says to his interviewer:
            Now, you’re too young, I take it, to remember London in the old days—in the French war, I mean, before the Regency? Just so. Well, if you’re to understand about Molineaux, and how he came to make such an almighty stir, and so forth, I must set you right about that time. ‘Twas as different from today as junk from Offley’s beef. Free and easy and jolly, no one giving a dam, churches half-empty and hells packed full, fashion and frolic the occupations, and sport the religion…A few sobersides fretted about morality and revolution, but since most o’ the country was three-parts drunk, nobody minded them. The Town was on the spree, and we were “on the Town”.
            Hard to swallow, eh, for your serious generation, taking your lead from our sedate young Queen, God bless her, and her pump-faced German noodle—ah, there’s the difference, in a nutshell! You  have the muff Albert, God help you, pious, worthy, dull as a wet Sabbath and dressed like a dead Quaker; we had fat Prinny, boozy and cheery and chasing skirt, in the pink of fashion as cut by Scott and approved by Brummel. That’s the difference thirty years has made. Your statesmen don’t gamble or fight duels; there ain’t one trace-kciker among your Society women; royalty don’t fornicate or have turn-ups at coronations nowadays; and what noble lord trains a prize pug or flees to France with the duns in full cry? (p.49-50)

            I’ve heard this explanation before by other writers. (In fact, this is pretty much the standard explanation, isn’t it?)  Personally, I find it a bit hard to credit that the morals of the monarch would have that much of an influence on something as large as society, but I’m not expert enough to contest it.

And finally, one last point:
George MacDonald Fraser’s Handling of Slavery and Racism
            This is a story that touches on not a few sensitive issues in British and American history—the horrors of slavery, and the more subtle issues of racism.
            George MacDonald Fraser, who used to take pride in being politically incorrect [SEE ARTICLE HERE] might not be the best person to handle this story.

            As with all issues of political sensitivity, this is ultimately a judgment call.  Some people will have no problem with this book, others will cringe slightly when reading the descriptions of slavery.

            I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding the Quentin Tarantino film Django.  (As of this writing, I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing Django, but I followed the controversy when it came out.)  Some people praised Django for faithfully depicting the brutality of slavery.  Others wondered if Django wasn’t exploiting the tragedy of slavery to make a trashy revenge movie.

            The same question could be raised of this book.  On the one hand, George MacDonald Fraser fully brings home the brutality of a system in which human beings are simply treated as a piece of property.
            But on the other hand…
            There is a perverted French character in this novel, someone who is obviously meant to act like a stand-in for the Marquis de Sade, who takes sadistic pleasure in sexually tormenting the female slaves.  I’m sure some people would argue that this depiction is meant as a condemnation of the slavery system, but reading those sections I wondered whether we might have crossed the line from a serious examination of the subject into something else entirely.
            (Well, love him or hate him, nothing George MacDonald Fraser writes is ever boring—I’ll give him that much.)

            Once the action switches to Britain, there’s a bit of a conflicted message about racism in 19th century England.  George MacDonald Fraser is never shy about praising his native country, and he is at pains to emphasize the contrast between British and American racial attitudes.  In America, Tom Molineaux was nothing more than a piece of property.  In Britain, he was able to achieve fame, fortune, and even rub shoulders with the aristocracy and royalty.  This point is emphasized a few times over.
            However there was a color barrier even in Britain, and Tom Molineaux did run up against it.  As one character describes it:
            He [Tom Molineaux] did not like us….  He did not believe we treated him fair. Nor did we, sir.  We robbed him o’ the Championship of England, and we abused and insulted and made mock of him when he was doing his best and showing us milling [boxing] as good as any … he was a stranger in a strange land, and the Fancy [boxing fraternity] at his fights was never what you’d call even-handed, were they?  Natural enough…but we could ha’ been kinder. (p.227-228)

            The story of a struggle against racism is sympathetic to black people, but sometimes the language this story is told in is not so sympathetic.
            Like the Flashman novels, this book is told from the perspective of the participants themselves, without an omniscient narrator.  And the participants tell their stories through the prism of their own language and prejudices.  As with the Flashman series, this narrative device means the book is filled with politically incorrect language and ideas, but the reader is meant to understand that this represents 19th century prejudices, and not objective reality.  Nevertheless, if racially insensitive language makes you uncomfortable, then best to avoid this book.  The “N-word” is used not a few times in this book.  (But then, it would be used by characters of that time, wouldn’t it?)

            For me, it’s the character of Tom Molineaux that made me more uncomfortable than anything else.  The way he’s written in this book, he could easily have been a 19th century Black Sambo stereotype.  He’s repeatedly described as simple, stupid, obstinate, completely lacking in self-control, over-sexed (with an obsession for white women), and an alcoholic.
            How much criticism should George MacDonald Fraser get for this? How much of this portrayal is based on historical fact?  (And how accurate were 19th century sources?) 
            Must all black people always be treated as saints? And if not, how much leeway does a novelist have to portray a black character in a negative light before a line is crossed? 
            The saving grace of this novel is that Tom Molineaux’s flaws are never portrayed as being representative of his whole race—other black characters, like Bill Richmond, are portrayed as being much more intelligent and rational.
            And as the real Tom Molineaux did die from alcoholism at a young age (W), it can’t be denied that at least some of his character flaws are a matter of history. 

            And yet, even so, George MacDonald Fraser’s portrayal of Tom Molineaux struck me as too simplistic and too close to traditional stereotypes.  A complex negative portrait of Tom Molineaux I could have lived with, but this portrayal of him as being simple-minded, over-sexed, and out of control around alcohol and white women, made me uncomfortable.

            Yet another Flashman book that I found to be highly readable, but that I’d think twice about before recommending.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Can Civilization Survive Capitalism? Capitalism as it exists today is radically incompatible with democracy.

No comments: