British Empire

Rara Avis: A Bad Paul Theroux Book

I’m a fan of Paul Theroux’s work. It started back in 1993 when I was preparing an English A-Level and was utterly bored by the Shakespeare we were studying. The Bard himself wasn’t to blame (for my opinion on Shakespeare, see here), as Much Ado About Nothing is always good. Rather, my classmates were. The problem is that, while I grew up in English-speaking countries, they were studying English as a second language, so their pace was a bit slower than mine.

Having read the play, I took advantage of where I usually sat in class (at the very back where I could lean my chair against the lockers) to randomly pull out a book from the lockers. The only thing available was a Penguin copy of The Mosquito Coast, which I read over the course of a couple of weeks of class while everyone else was discussing Benedick, Beatrice and Hero.

It was a wonderful book.

My next experience with Theroux happened a couple of years ago when I picked up a free copy of The Great Patagonian Express. This one was equally good and once again, I loved it. I especially enjoyed reading a travel book from the era when one could clearly and openly state how foreign cultures looked to a First World eye. It’s a refreshing change from today’s excess of sensitivity.

Unfortunately, third time was most certainly NOT a charm.

Kowloon Tong is a book whose premise had potential. It focuses on a British family in Honk Kong, tied to the colony by ownership of a factory, in the days leading up to the handover of the territory to China.

It’s a situation fraught with melancholy, the loss of a unique way of life, one which can’t be created in the modern world and doesn’t seem to have been improved upon by the new communist regime (at least judging by recent events). As the great Peter Egan once said: wherever the British planted their flag, you most often ended up with democracy, safe drinking water and a decent lifestyle.

But the book falls flat on its face. In the tradition of A Confederacy of Dunces, the characters are intentionally made to be unlikable. And like Confederacy, I enjoyed it very little.

Without giving spoilers, it’s a novel of human weakness and the duller, less interesting sordid side of humanity. Instead of going for the huge gesture, the major statements, the characters in this book are wet, uninspired and small.

Which is a pity, because the loss of the unique anachronism that was British Hong Kong deserved a great monument.

Perhaps that monument exists, but this isn’t it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer fascinated with exotic places and interesting cultures. He celebrates human differences instead of trying to minimize them, and nowhere is this more evident than in his collection Off the Beaten Path, where science fiction, fantasy and non-Western civilizations combine in a unique and heady mix. You can check it out here.

A Wonderful Escape into a Lost Era

On Thursday, I spoke at length about a fantasy book, or at least a book set in a world that never existed, which is as good a definition of fantasy as one might give.  The interesting thing about Gormenghast, though is that the book never felt as much like I was escaping the real world as it did that I was navigating a maze that never truly let me forget the outside universe.

When you think about it, it’s strange that a fantasy book of that stature finds it hard to create the escapist objective of literature while the very next book I read, a non-fiction work, immediately plunged me into fantasyland and made all my troubles disappear–for a time.

The Whispering Land - Gerald Durrell

Of course, a world where one is free to roam about and collect animals for one’s private zoo is actually much more of an escape than one that talks about mad rulers.  And, besides, Gerald Durrell was a better writer than Mervyn Peake (and most of today’s socially conscious genre writers are worse than both).

When you take both these factors into consideration, The Whispering Land is one of those books that transports you to the wonders of a simpler time.  Yes, it’s based on the assumption that the British Empire is a civilizing force, and yes, if you tried to create something as barbaric as a zoo today, you’d get lynched by the ecologists, but both of those realities, far from offending, make the book even better, as they are so gently couched as to be wonderful as opposed to antisocial.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one as much as the incredible The Bafut Beagles and A Zoo in my Luggage, mainly because the book was set in Argentina in the 1960s, which, to my mind is a much less interesting and exotic locale than Africa in the 1950s could ever be.  Though a bit far away to be familiar to most, Argentina is essentially similar to southern Europe, if the poor were a bit more poor.  It’s not a truly exotic locale.

But Durrell’s wonderful writing and uncanny knack for finding kernels of wisdom and wonder even in the mundane, combined with the fact that he was actually spending time well on the fringes of the country, in the cold, desolate, penguin-infested coasts of Patagonia and the northern jungles make this one nearly as good as his African classics.  Even the foibles of third-world corruption are cheerfully presented as facts, and become quirks to be smiled at as opposed to anchors dragging down nations.

Seen from the perspective of the twenty-first century, Durrell’s work becomes the preemptive counter-strike and perfect library partner to Notes from a Small Island, in the sense that Bryson looks and Britain from an outsider’s perspective while Durrell looks at the rest of us from a distinctly British point of view.  And yes, he is well aware that that point of view is eccentric as hell, made more so by his insistence on running a private zoo.

At the risk of gushing I’ll just close with my recommendation: buy anything by Durrell you can get your hands on and read it.  If something therein offends you the problem is yours (have a doctor check you for an over-inflated sense of outrage and underpowered capacity for whimsy), and if you can’t lose yourself in his mid-century world, then you need to try to remember what wonder feels like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose latest book is a collection of 22 short stories set in places far from the First World.  It’s called Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

As I’ve mentioned here before, I live about a block and a half from a beautiful Anglican church that holds a jamboree every year.  They have games for children, food and, in one delightful room, piles of used books for sale.

I particularly love this because the kind of books they have for sale tend towards the things that the British community in Argentina would have had on their shelves in the fifties, sixties and seventies: books and other periodicals in English that I never would have thought to buy for myself.  Often, they can be had for a token price and all proceeds go to charity, so there’s plenty of incentive to bring home something outside your normal comfort zone.

The White Nile by Alan Moorhead

One of these titles was The White Nile by Alan Moorehead, a hefty hardcover that I immediately grabbed out of the pile.

Now, for those of you who don’t know it, the history of the exploration and colonization of the lower reaches of the Nile in the latter half of the 19th century is fascinating, and Moorehead’s style makes for gripping reading.  The tale of Livingstone and Stanley is probably the most famous of these, but perhaps the military quests and particularly Gordon’s famous defeat at Khartoum are the most interesting parts.

Like Tarzan of the Apes, this is a book that one needs to read without falling into the revisionist trap.  Published in 1960, a time where the glories of the British Empire lived vividly in the minds of many, it doesn’t pander to modern sensibilities.  That’s not to say it’s rampantly racist or one-sided–it isn’t; Moorehead was a historian with a decent amount of sensitivity to the people he wrote about–but it IS written from the British viewpoint, and exclusively through the testimony of white explorers, many of whom truly believed that they were bringing light to a dark region of the world.  When you read their descriptions of what they found, it’s even possible for open-minded readers to understand why they felt this way.

If you can set aside modern thought patterns for a moment, this book is nearly as good as any lost race novel at transporting you to fascinating worlds… with the added benefit that the events related therein actually took place in real life.  It’s an escape from the pressures and rhythms of everyday life that make it well worth the effort of leaving one’s sensibilities aside.

And you’ll learn one heck of a lot along the way.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of the well-received novel Siege.