Alan Furst’s other heroes of World War II (Column: Bookends IX)

By Vikas Datta (09:30) 

Decades after it ended, the Second World War continues to inspire fiction, and there are thousands of works dealing with some of its significant events or weaving them into their own narratives. But only a few aspects have tended to predominate and innumerable others have remained not so well known or not much dwelt on.

Take the war in Europe. The Battle of Britain, the vicious fighting on the Russian Front, the Jewish Holocaust, and the D-Day landings are topics more frequently seen in books (or for that matter, films), but they are certainly not the full story of the desperate conflict across the continent – almost fully occupied by the Germans.

Authors venturing into this largely unexplored territory – especially East Europe and the Balkans or the countries where undeclared shadow wars were on much before WWII began – are not unknown but are not very common, at least in English. Graham Greene and Eric Ambler have been the most illustrious and continuing their tradition is American author Alan Furst with his “Night Soldiers” series.

A Bulgarian defector from the Soviet spy agency, a French director of gangster films, a Hungarian emigre, a Dutch sailor, a Polish army cartographer, a Greek policeman…. Furst’s novels have a number of unusual protagonists. Like life, the novels are also difficult to categorise in one specific genre – historic espionage thrillers with a frequent romance element would be the bare minimum description.

The series – currently comprising 12 books with the 13th due in June – are set in a time-frame stretching from 1933 to 1945: from the year Hitler came to power to the year the war ended. However, only the first – which has given its name to the series – goes on right to the war’s end and most others are set in the run-up to WWII or in its early years and conclude in the same time frame.

This device offers a great advantage. Not only do the works effortlessly and masterfully evoke the tense atmosphere of the time across the great European capitals – London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade, Istanbul – they seem to date from the era itself. With the war on or set to come soon, the relative security in which the protagonists find themselves at the end of the narrative and their ambiguous future fosters this perception.

The series comprises “Night Soldiers” (1988), “Dark Star” (1991), “The Polish Officer” (1995), “The World at Night” (1996), “Red Gold” (1999), “Kingdom of Shadows” (2000), “Blood of Victory” (2003), “Dark Voyage” (2004), “The Foreign Correspondent” (2006), “The Spies of Warsaw” (2008), “Spies of the Balkans” (2010), “Mission to Paris” (2012) and “Midnight in Europe” (due in June).

“Night Soldiers”, as mentioned, is the only one that encompasses the entire time frame fixed by Furst. It covers varied terrain – Khristo Stoianev travels from his small Bulgarian hometown to Moscow as Stalin’s purges are beginning, into the Spanish Civil War, to pre-WWII Paris, and for a nearly fatal mission into Romania before safely ending up in New York.

The rest can be divided into those set in the time before the war began – “Kingdom of Shadows”, “The Foreign Correspondent”, “The Spies of Warsaw” and “Mission to Paris” while all the others deal with its outbreak and early years.

All the books are loosely but subtly connected; protagonists in one may turn up in cameo roles in others and there is a large number of secondary characters in more than one book. A visit to the Brasserie Heininger in Paris is a recurring motif.

“The World at Night” and “Red Gold” are the only ones featuring the same protagonist – French film director Jean Casson. They deal with Casson’s activities for the Resistance in occupied France as Furst skillfully evokes the state of a man cut off from his previous comfortable life and pitched into one entailing dangerous pursuits while having to avoid old friends, leave alone seeking their help.

Sabotaging Romanian barges carrying oil for the Germans, assisting in a coup against a pro-German Yugoslav regime, transporting Polish gold reserves out of their country simultaneously invaded by the Germans and the Russians, spiriting out Jews from Nazi Germany to safety in neutral countries… Furst’s heroes accomplish a lot of desperate ventures but with the sobering realisation that there is no safe homeland or easy life to return to once their mission ends.

Furst is a master at creating a tale of espionage that balances atmosphere and action along with deft characterisation, especially of East Europeans who’ve been badly served in fiction since Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. If you like thoughtful thrillers, about unsung, unknown people of Nazi-occupied Europe whose commitment and contribution to victory and freedom was no less than the millions of Allied soldiers, Furst is definitely worth a read.

(13.04.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

The dark side of Asia with Inspector Singh (Column: Bookends VIII)

 

By Vikas Datta (11:08) 

Well-settled around the world, the Indian diaspora has a lively literary tradition but this is somewhat deficient in their depiction of people in a work setting. Overseas Indians write about themselves, but a fictional character in a public role – law enforcement, for example – in the increasingly multi-ethnic societies they inhabit is a rare exception.

NYPD’s Lieutenant Raghavan appears in Matt Rees’ “The Fourth Assassin” – of the Omar Yussef series – but doesn’t even have a speaking part in her two scenes. The first ethnic Indian policeman to be a principal protagonist is Inspector Singh (we never learn his first name) of the Singapore police force, courtesy Shamini Flint.

The portly – oh well, overweight – dishevelled Sikh, quite fond of beer and curry, is not a prepossessing figure but has an excellent crime-solving record. Unfortunately (for his superiors), he also has a tendency to unearth some unsavoury aspects and is sent around Asia to handle tricky cases.

The brainchild of corporate lawyer-turned-author Flint, a Singapore-based Malaysian of Indian/Sri Lankan origin, Singh is a conscientious policeman whose “nonconformist character allows him to confront the conservative forces within Asian society”.

In an e-mail chat, Flint said she was “keen to have a policeman who was ethnically Indian in order to be able to tap my own family experience when it came to developing his character”.

“All I have to do,” she added, “is attend a family wedding and my relatives give me enough dialogue to fill three books.”

A Sikh was picked because she “wanted someone physically distinct, and the turban was a good place to start”. Also, given the accounts, post 9/11, about how Sikhs living in the West have often been mistaken for Muslims and subjected to physical and racial abuse, she thought this was “an interesting present-day twist to being a Sikh”.

The first in the currently six-volume series – all prefixed “Inspector Singh Investigates” – is “A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder” (2009), where he is sent to Kuala Lumpur to “liaise” in the investigation into the murder of a businessman whose widow, and prime suspect, is a Singaporean citizen. She is also well-known model, meaning the case figures in the tabloids and public consciousness.

Right at the airport, Singh shows his nature – separating two fighting businessmen at the first class check-in and putting them in place by getting 10 economy class passengers ahead of them. However, his work in Malaysia is not easy; adding to a complex case are the political, cultural and religious tensions that he has to negotiate. Justice is somehow ensured, with the aid of a sympathetic Malaysian police sergeant.

In “A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul” (2009), he is dispatched to the idyllic Indonesian island in the wake of a terror bombing, despite protests that he is unsuitable. However, when one of the victims is found to have been murdered prior to the blast, Singh digs in with an Australian policewoman’s aid and, in solving the case, manages to spike a further terror plot.

“The Singapore School of Villainy” (2010) sees Singh at home – hectored by his superiors who constantly label him a disgrace to the force and nagged by his wife. But when an international law firm’s senior partner is found murdered in his office, and there is no shortage of suspects, it is Singh who is entrusted the case that threatens to expose Singaporean society’s dark side.

“A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree” (2011) sees the inspector seconded to observe a war crimes trial. But when a tribunal member is murdered, Singh plunges into a terrifying investigation whose roots lie in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge era.

“A Curious Indian Cadaver” (2012) sees him in Mumbai for a family wedding but when the bride runs away and a corpse is found, Singh is prevailed upon by his wife to absolve her family. But he faces unending deceit, stretching to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

Then comes “A Calamitous Chinese Killing” (2013), which takes Singh to Beijing, where a Singaporean diplomat’s son is found murdered. Most unwilling to get involved, he faces a tough time as he confronts the darker side of the Chinese miracle.

Despite the somewhat humorous character, the books deal with some pretty dark issues, but Flint contends that is inevitable. “I don’t think it is possible to write about Asian politics, law and culture without recognising the dark side to our society often papered over with economic success stories.”

The next stop for Singh is England, with Flint “looking forward to taking my Asian sleuth to the home of crime fiction”.

As much as a product of his environment like his cold and bleak Nordic counterparts, Singh is a creature of the tropics – hot under the collar and sweaty under the armpits – but as tenacious a policeman, and, in the process, a mirror of the faultlines in Asian society.

(06.04.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Exploring the Palestinian predicament with Omar Yussef (Column: Bookends VII)

By Vikas Datta (11:30) 

Their predicament is an enduring problem of our times and has resisted solution — by violent struggle or by negotiated settlement. An unfortunate offshoot is that Palestinians have ended up being portrayed either as brutal terrorists or hapless victims.

But if you don’t subscribe to the stereotyped view and seek a view from an entirely new angle, the Omar Yussef mysteries by British journalist-turned-novelist Matt Beynon Rees — set in West Bank and Gaza and even beyond — could be a good start. With a long stint as a correspondent in Jerusalem, Rees has impeccable qualifications to tell the story.

The hero of ‘Palestinian Quartet’ is an unlikely sleuth. Omar Yussef Sirhan is an elderly history teacher in a U.N.-run school in Bethlehem who could be content to live quietly with his family and grandchildren. But his radical past and awareness of sufferings of the refugees whose children he teaches don’t let him stick to a sedentary life and make him confront the violence and corruption around him — to the best of his ability.

We first meet Omar Yussef in “The Bethlehem Murders” (“The Collaborator of Bethlehem” in the US, 2007), as he seeks to clear an ex-student — a Palestinian Christian — arrested on charges of collaboration after a resistance leader is killed by Israeli snipers while visiting his home surreptitiously.

Yussef launches his own investigation despite his family and best friend (Bethlehem police chief Khamis Zeydan) urging him not to jeopardise his and his family’s safety by taking on the gunmen running rampage through the town, but is unable to save his student.

However, he carries on doggedly to unmask the real culprit as the story builds up to an adrenalin-pumping finale in the Church of Nativity’s crypts.

“The Saladin Murders” (“A Grave in Gaza” in the US, 2008) takes Yussef to Gaza with his U.N. boss to inspect the U.N. schools there. Trouble is not far away as a fellow teacher, a whistleblower, in the volatile region is arrested on suspicion of links to the CIA, while Yussef’s U.N. superior is kidnapped.

Now embroiled in Gaza’s murky and violent machinations, Yussef has to carefully manoeuvre between rival but equally sinister security agencies, derail an arms shipment that could ignite fresh conflict with the Israelis, rescue his boss and get justice for his colleague. Help is on hand from Zeydan, in Gaza City for a Palestinian conclave, and his mysterious local contact Sami Jaffari.

The next is “The Samaritan’s Secret” (2009), which takes Yussef to Nablus, the West Bank’s most violent town, to attend a wedding but before that he has three days to avert a catastrophe looming over the Palestinian people.

The trouble starts when a Samaritan, member of a tiny Jewish community who hold they have been continuous inhabitants of the land from Biblical times, is found murdered. He is, however, no ordinary man but a close aide of the recently-dead Yasser Arafat (referred to as “the Old Man”) and controlled his secret funds — millions of dollars of which are missing.

The World Bank threatens to cut off all aid until these are traced and it is Yussef who undertakes to accomplish the impossible, even as fighting rages in the town between Arafat loyalists and Hamas men.

“The Fourth Assassin” takes Yussef to New York to attend a U.N. conference on education. Dropping in to see his youngest son, who works as a computer programmer in the city, he discovers a corpse in the house. Thankfully, it is not of his son but his flatmate; but his son is arrested for suspected involvement.

Yussef, aided by Zeydan (accompanying the president who is due to address the U.N.), must solve the crime and prevent a dastardly assassination plot in the corridors of the world body while getting a chance to vent his mind at the assembled delegates from across the Arab world.

Rees is a dab hand at evoking the settings — the grimness of Bethlehem, the sense of danger in Gaza, the bewildering aromas of Nablus’ sunless casbah and the Arab sections of New York — as well as drawing well-delineated characters and creating realistic dialogue — specially the banter between Yussef and Zeydan.

Significantly, no Israelis appear in the books and Rees makes it clear that Palestinians — some of them at least — must share the blame for the plight of their people, who have the understandable aspirations of a life of honour and dignity.

The books do not flinch from portraying the endemic violence of West Asia, but seeks to humanise what is a distant and bewildering conflict, and the resilience of spirit even in a polarised and soul-destroying milieu.

(Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Windows into Pakistan: Four debut novels (Column: Bookends VI)

 

By Vikas Datta (10:14) 

It is frequently described as the most dangerous place in the world. With suicide bombings and shootings, terrorists camping on its territory, high and entrenched levels of fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment, rampant social, ethnic and sectarian tensions, a government seemingly with no authority over its powerful military and intelligence organs, Pakistan could well deserve the label.

This is what the world sees, but is it the full story?

There are many ways to find out, but literature is a fairly accurate mirror. How do Pakistani authors, even if they represent quite a minute and relatively privileged section of the populace, depict what is happening around them?

The answer – seemingly obvious and scarcely unexpected – is that they focus on people carrying on with their lives, and the violence – terrorist or otherwise – is tangential to their lives until it directly affects them or those close to them.

Let’s see how fiction from Pakistan deals with life and society, through the prism of four debut novels – most of them recent releases – set in Karachi.

First impressions are generally the lasting ones, and several Pakistani authors have had scintillating debuts that amply displayed their literary potential – Mohammad Hanif’s “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” are good examples.

Likewise, the initial offerings of Shazaf Haider Fatima, Omar Shahid Hamid, Saba Imtiaz and Maha Khan Phillips leave a mark and even if these are the only books they end up writing – god forbid – it will cement their status as incisive and witty observers of their milieu.

Hamid’s “The Prisoner” (published November 2013) is a no-holds-barred account of policing in Karachi and weaves in quite a bit of recent history – suitably camouflaged – in the taut narrative, peopled by bent police officers, crooked politicians, manipulative secret agents and, yes, the jihadis.

An American journalist is kidnapped in Karachi and his jihadi captors threaten to execute him on camera – like Daniel Pearl. With the US president’s visit slated soon, the desperate authorities are forced to seek help of a jailed police officer – left implicated in a high-profile killing (quite similiar to that of Murtaza Bhutto) – to ensure the journalist’s safe release.

Hamid, a former head of Karachi CID, scores with having a Christian police officer as the pivotal character, thus providing a narrator with the persistent sense of being an outsider and seeming to offer a detached view. Other characters are also well-delineated, especially the police high-ups like “Hanuman” and “Dr. Death” and the spies whose agencies are just referred by their locations – Bleak House and Kaaley Gate (though the identities are obvious).

“Karachi, You’re Killing Me!” (published February 2014) is another view of the city but through the eyes of a journalist juggling between a stressful job, a complicated love life and a home where the pet cat sometimes receives more affection.

A journalist-turned-author, Imtiaz writes with verve and panache of the travails of the 20s-something Ayesha, whose work takes her to the site of suicide bombings, the Bhutto family mausoleum in interior Sindh, an over-the-top fashion show (where the boss’ inebriated wife walks the ramp) – and even to interview a couture cupcake designer (the boss’ niece) or verify the reports of an escaped lion on the beach.

The treatment is humorous – the depictions of the fashion show and the literature fest (where two men quarrel over their ‘contributions’ to Faiz’s poetry) are among the funniest.

Phillip’s “Beautiful from the Angle” is slightly older (2010). It initially seems like chick-lit with its beach parties full of people – like the principal protagonist Amynah – consuming liquor and drugs but soon disproves the impression.

Amynah, a society columnist, gets embroiled with her friends Henna and Mumtaz in trying to rescue a battered woman, even as a friend organises a celebrity reality show “Who Wants to be a Terrorist?” Politics, terrorism, social repression, and media (manipulation) combine in an explosive finale when Benazir Bhutto returns home.

“How it Happened” (November 2013) is different, belonging to that misunderstood genre – the comedy of manners – which is also difficult to pull off, but Haider does it with rare aplomb.

It is the tale of a middle-class family, ruled by an iron-willed grandmother, seeking suitable matrimonial matches for a son and a daughter. But though Haroon is easily persuaded, the feisty Zeba is another matter altogether. Told from the viewpoint of the youngest sibling, the teenaged Saleha, the story could too easily have degenerated into melodrama were it not for the author’s deft and light touch.

These works may be a small, subjective selection but they demonstrate that Pakistan’s troubles haven’t extinguished creativity. It may well be a difficult, dangerous country but its writers are capable of candid but witty portrayals of the conditions.

(23-03-2014-Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Indian police evolve in crime fiction (Column: Bookends V)

By Vikas Datta (10:36) 

The roles have been reversed in crime fiction. As the genre was born, it was amateur detectives like Sherlock Holmes who solved crimes or guided police to the solution. They still flourish, but police have reclaimed their role in crime-solving and have managed to hang in there — in police procedurals set across the world.

Apart from British and American examples like Inspector Morse or the 87th Precinct squad or even the crop of angst-ridden Scandinavian investigators, stories of police officials doggedly solving crime can be found in almost every country — USSR/Russia, Japan, Bosnia, Brazil, Turkey, China, and even Botswana, the Solomon Islands and Samoa.

India is very much on the list.

There are over half a dozen Indian characters that can hold their own globally. Almost all are indigenous creations. However, only a few of the books are police procedurals — a genre with rich potential but still in its infancy in India.

Among the first Indian policemen seen in fiction is Inspector Strickland, an immortal creation of Rudyard Kipling, seen in six short stories and a cameo appearance in “Kim”.

A maverick at odds with his superiors, he is known for his skill in operating undercover and knowing secrets, which consequently makes him both hated and feared by the natives. However, Strickland’s feats are only referred to and just one of the stories can be called crime fiction.

The first four books of Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series are set in British India, but he can be ignored since he is of the Scotland Yard, not the Indian Police.

The first full-fledged Indian police detective — but not an indigenous creation — is Bombay (now Mumbai) police Inspector Ganesh V. Ghote, who doggedly solves crime despite all the pressures.

The brainchild of H.R.F. Keating — who never visited India till midway into the series — Ghote appears in 24 novels and a collection of short stories (published between 1964 to 2009), as well as a film (“The Perfect Murder”, with Naseeruddin Shah in the role).

It was only in late 2008 that the first indigenous Indian policeman appeared – Delhi Police ACP Nikhil Juneja, who stars in Reeti Gadekar’s “Families at Home” (2008) and “Bottom of the Heap” (2012).

The rebellious but hedonistic son of a rich businessman, Juneja chose the police, instead of the family business, and finds his way eased more by his antecedents than his position in the force.

“Families At Home” can be loosely termed a whodunnit, tending more towards how influence can subvert investigations, while “Bottom of the Heap” sticks to the theme as well as class and caste division faultlines and is only tangentially concerned with crime-solving.

It ends on a dilemma — Juneja trying to decide between expediency and justice, his future in the force, how to deal with his father and, yes, how to escape his girlfriend. A third in the series is long due but there is no sign of it yet.

Anita Nair’s “Cuts Like Wound” (2012) introduces another promising character — Inspector Borei Gowda of the Bangalore Police. The archetypal policeman, Gowda, who has difficult relations with his family and superiors, struggles to be allowed to pursue what are dismissed as random killings, but he correctly identifies as the work of a serial killer. A sequel is earnestly sought.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Bikram Chatterjee’s capers are more like police procedurals. Debuting in Monabi Mitra’s “FIR” (2012), he returns in “The Dead Don’t Confess” (2013) — both atmospheric, racy whodunnits (but incorporating other sub-plots) set in Kolkata and its surroundings. Both books seem quite authentic in approach, possibly due to the author having a husband who is a police officer.

Inspector Virkar of Mumbai Police is another promising character. Originally appearing as a supporting character in one of the novellas in Piyush Jha’s noirish “Mumbaistan” (2012), he graduates to his own book, “Compass Box Killer” (2013), a tautly-written tale of a spate of killings and the good inspector’s efforts to ascertain a pattern that will help him to identify and apprehend the killer. A betrayal fleshes out the tale.

Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah is a feisty, determined but a credible character. She debuts in the murder mystery “Drop Dead” (2012) , which successfully weaves together several engrossing strands, from murder in a restricted access site, corporate politics, the seamy side of celebrity relationships, to war heroes with dark pasts, but retains the police procedure aspect with alibi checks, forensic tests, pressure from superiors, and so on.

“The Butcher of Benares”, by Mahendra Jakhar, featuring Delhi Police Crime Branch Inspector Hawa Singh has just appeared. Since I am yet to read it, I can’t comment on it.

(16-03-2014-Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

The fictional transformation of Vladimir Putin (Column: Bookends IV)

By Vikas Datta (09:28) 

Admired or hated, he cannot be ignored. It is undeniable that Vladimir V. Putin restored Russia’s traditional great-power status, though opinion is divided if this is good or bad.

Initially perceived (mainly in the Western world) as a reliable partner shoring up Russia, he is now seen as a defiant maverick, and even a tyrannical leader.

Likewise, Putin’s depiction in fiction has seen him move from a valuable mentor figure to a spy mastermind, who, if not evil, is cold-blooded and definitely not nice as the US-Russian spy war returns to Cold War intensity.

The first depiction of the ex-KGB officer is in Henry Porter’s “Brandenburg” (2005), a gritty espionage tale set in the repressive East Germany in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Art historian (and former spy) Rudi Rosenharte is hauled back into service by the ruthlessly efficient Stasi to contact his former lover (now working for NATO) who has apparently important information to hand over.

Rosenharte, who is a double agent, knows it is a ploy by his other masters – MI6 and CIA – to contact him. They want him to find about an Arab terrorist being harboured by Stasi.

As Rosenharte juggles between his masters, the Soviets get in the game too.

A seemingly nondescript KGB lieutenant colonel, heading his service’s Dresden base, makes his appearance, helping Rosenharte in various ways – protecting him, giving him key information, and even intervening to free him from jail. If the description and designation were not enough, he is even identified as the future Russian leader.

This Putin is also present at a seminal event – the evening press conference where an East German minister jumped the gun on easing of travel restrictions, triggering the massive crowds on both sides of the Berlin Wall that, in a few hours, brought down the nearly three decade-old barrier.

Subsequent appearances are not very complimentary.

Set in Russia of 2005, Martin Cruz Smith’s “Stalin’s Ghost” (2007) repeatedly refers to Putin, who was then beginning his second term, though he does not make an appearance himself. The book, part of the investigator Arkady Renko series, focusses on the country’s faultlines — war crimes in Chechnya, criminal elements in security agencies, the rise of xenophobic sentiments – “under the former spy in the Kremlin”.

Charles Cumming’s “The Trinity Six” (2011) swings the other way from “Brandenburg”.

Based on the premise that there was a sixth man in the infamous Cambridge spy ring – five highly-placed MI6 officials spying for the Soviet Union – it sees the hero, a Cold War historian, trying to expose the last traitor. Against him is ranged the Russian regime, headed by President “Sergey Platov”, as well as British intelligence.

Why does Platov want to keep this sixth man hidden? Because something – which would not look too good on his record – happened between the two in East Germany where he once served as a mid-ranking KGB officer!

David R. Stokes’ “Camelot’s Cousin” (2013, 2nd edition) is based on a quite similar premise, except that here the hidden spy is from an Oxford version of the Cambridge ring – and was a close advisor to President John F. Kennedy at various key moments, including the Cuban missile crisis.

Naturally (but a little implausibly from the plot point of view), the Russians, under Putin – who, as an ex-spy, wants a secret to remain one – will go to any end to stop the name from coming out. Mayhem ensues until it ends very satisfactorily for the hero.

“Red Sparrow” (2013), by ex-CIA employee Jason Mathews, is a thrilling account of the no-holds-barred clandestine struggle between the CIA and SVR (the KGB’s successor) – reminiscent of the Cold War at its height – as the Russians strive to unearth an American mole and the CIA tries to save him.

Appearing a handful of times – including bare-chested in the middle of strenuous exercise (in line with his projected macho image) – the omniscient Putin is fully aware of the activities of his spies, who – as ruthless as they may be – are on tenterhooks in his presence – quite like in Stalin’s time.

The president is shown actively directing the covert operations and, in the end, arranging the brutal but effective contingency plan to ensure the traitor does not escape as the action moves across two continents before a showdown on the Russian-Estonian border.

(09.03.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Flashman novels: Bawdy, irreverent romp through the 19th century (Column: Bookends III)

By Vikas Datta (10:04) 

Deemed a military hero, Major General Sir Harry Paget Flashman’s autobiographical accounts tell of his exploits in the First Afghan War, the Anglo-Sikh War, the 1857 “revolt” and military campaigns of Queen Victoria; of carrying out missions for Bismarck and Abraham Lincoln, and his presence in almost every significant event of the 19th century across five continents.

During the course of his colourful life, Flashman tangles up with slaves, pirates, Thugs and Red Indians, saves the Kohinoor diamond, causes the Charge of the Light Brigade, fights on both sides in the American Civil War, achieves the first hat-trick in cricket, and even encounters Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson… the last gives it away, doesn’t it?

If you thought Flashman was a real person, you would be in august company. In 1969, when the first of the Flashman papers came out, a third of over 30 expert reviews studied by The New York Times thought so too, with some of them terming it the most important literary find since the Boswell Papers.

But to be fair to the general reader, the works are presented in such a manner that they can easily be taken in – the 12 volumes of the Flashman papers seek to chronicle real events and even have appendices seeking to clarify some points, as well as fairly exhaustive footnotes.

The character as well as the concept was the brainchild of George McDonald Fraser (1925-2008), a soldier, journalist, author and screenplay writer. Taking a minor character from “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, McDonald Fraser – in a stunning interplay of fact and fiction – elevated him to the status of a most jaundiced and politically incorrect but very perceptive observer of the 19th century.

It was a hard feat to pull off – Flashman is the quintessential anti-hero. A self-admitted coward, cad, debauch as well as a bully/toady (depending on whom he is dealing with), the tall, well-built Flashman’s main objective is to save his skin and enrich himself. His only skills are his talent for languages, his expert riding – and his mastery at seduction.

He is embroiled in his adventures most reluctantly – by blackmail, or to save being exposed (and the consequent social disgrace) or, more often, when his attempts to escape miscarry. He comes perilously close to being unmasked twice or thrice but luckily for him, the probable whistle-blowers don’t survive.

Despite all this, the series was avidly read, being both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. The credit must go to Fraser, who skillfully creates the framing plot, insinuates Flashman in a crisis, provides a narrative with plenty of humour, sparkling dialogue, incisive pen-portaits of real characters, enough cliff-hanger moments to grab interest, and then finds a way to ensure Flashman survives with reputation intact or even enhanced.

What makes Flashman a delight to read is that he is himself not concerned with anyone’s reputation, or the “higher purpose” of events and they come in for some quite caustic but witty appraisals.

In these pages, he meets Queen Victoria, the Rani of Jhansi, Maharani Jind Kaur and Maharaja Dhuleep Singh, Florence Nightingale, Lincoln, Bismarck, Ulysses Grant, and Gen. Custer (of Custer’s Last Stand) to mention some prominent historical figures.

Along with what he thought of them, his views on the first British invasion of Afghanistan, the Sikh War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, the destruction of the Summer Palace in then Peking, American attitudes towards slaves or Red Indians, are decidedly provocative.

Adding to the attraction are those whose exploits may seem highly inventive fiction but are the truth – James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, who fought piracy in the Malay Straits; Josiah Harlan, an American adventurer who served both Ranjit Singh and Afghanistan’s Dost Mohammad and became prince of Ghor (when he unfurled the American flag on the Hindu Kush); and his contemporary and countryman Alexander Campbell Gardner, who had hair-raising adventures in Central Asia and Afghanistan before serving (as Gordana Khan) Ranjit Singh and his heirs.

The 12 installment of the papers (in chronological order) are “Flashman” (Britain/Afghanistan), “Flashman’s Lady” (Britain/Borneo/Madagascar), “Flashman and the Mountain of Light” (the Punjab), “Royal Flash” (Europe), “Flash for Freedom” (Britain/West Africa/America), “Flashman and the Redskins (part I)” (America), “Flashman at the Charge” (Crimea/Central Asia), “Flashman in the Great Game” (India in 1857), “Flashman and the Angel of the Lord” (South Africa/America), “Flashman and the Dragon” (China), “Flashman on the March” (Ethiopia), “Flashman and the Redskins (part II)” (America) and “Flashman and the Tiger” (stories). They appeared between 1969 and 2005.

The next Flashman paper was to see him either in Australia (the only continent which he had not visited yet) or shed light on his activities in the American Civil War – hinted at in several of the books but only known to him and President Lincoln. McDonald Fraser’s death in 2008, however, ensured we will never come to know what exactly happened or how the chronicles of this most unlikely “hero” finally end.

(02.03.2014 – Vikas Datta is Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at vikas.d@ians.in)

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