Monday, May 8, 2017
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“PRESTER JOHN” by John Buchan (first published in 1910)
The select few who are regular readers of this blog will know that I have the snide habit of every so often reading and then taking pot-shots at books which were once upon a time bestsellers. Usually I offer the excuse that bestsellers, even if rarely of great literary merit, tell us more about the tastes of past years than more durable literary classics do. I have at various times given this treatment to John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, George Du Maurier’s Trilby, Stephen McKenna’s Sonia, W. Somerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday, Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, A.C. Benson’s The House of Quiet, and (perhaps) J.Meade Falkner’s The LostStradivarius. In some sense each of these books is readable, but each also has obvious contrivances to win readers by playing up to the prejudices and tastes of the age in which it appeared. For us, these tastes and prejudices are at best quaint and at worst reprehensible.
However, I have rarely met an ancient bestseller expressing values which are so repugnant to us now as those of Prester John.
John Buchan (1875-1940) was one of the nabobs of the British Empire, convinced of the necessity for “the white man’s burden” in subduing and civilising inferior races. He often held senior positions in imperial administration. As Lord Tweedsmuir, he ended up as Governor General of Canada. You have to admire the industry and diligence of a man who wrote over 100 books in his 65 years, some of which remain harmless fun (the best-known still being the light thriller The 39 Steps) and some of which are acceptable history lite (like his two books on Sir Walter Scott). As a kid I read most of his Richard Hannay books, and the ones concerning the adventuring grocer Dickson McCann. What is relevant to Prester John is that, when he wrote it, John Buchan had spent some years working as secretary to Lord Milner when he was “reconstructing” South Africa after Boer War (i.e. making the defeated Afrikaners of the Transvaal and Orange Free State conform to the British Empire).
19-year-old David Crawfurd is (as John Buchan was) the son of a Presbyterian minister. In Prester John he comes from Scotland to South Africa as a minor business clerk and with much derring-do foils a united uprising of “Kaffirs”, which was going to be led by the black Christian minister John Laputa. In cahoots with a sinister Portuguese trader Henriques, John Laputa presents himself to credulous Africans as the legitimate heir to the legendary Prester John and the man destined to unite the tribes (mainly Zulu and Swazi) into a mighty empire and drive the white men into the sea. Much of his credibility depends on his possession of a fabulous ruby necklace, which Prester John is supposed to have worn. [Hence the title of the French translation of Buchan’s novel – Le Collier du Pretre Jean – Prester John’s Necklace]. When, his uprising foiled and his necklace taken from him, Laputa is at last defeated, he commits suicide dramatically by plunging into a ravine – thus clearing the way for the undisturbed progress of British rule in South Africa.
As a Boy’s Own Paper story, Prester John is vivid and engrossing and moves at a swift pace. Most of the action involves dashes around the South African veldt and mountains as David Crawfurd either tracks, or escapes from, his African enemies. Three times he is captured. Three times he breaks free. It is hard not to think of David Balfour (also a Protestant Scot Lowlander) dashing around the Highlands in Kidnapped. The choice of the hero’s first name is probably no coincidence.
It is very easy to note the yarn’s defects, even as pure adventure story.
There are, for example, the ridiculously superhuman feats of skill and endurance of the youthful hero – running huge distances, climbing up a cataract on the sheer rock wall of an underground cave in which he has been trapped etc. There is also the ease with which he is able to overhear and gain vital information. In one scene, locked in the narrow cellar of a remote dwelling, he is able to crawl under the very spot where Laputa and Henriques are talking, put his ear to the ceiling and overhear every word of the dastardly plans they are hatching. This reminded me irresistibly of the Comic Strip Presents “Famous Five” spoof Five Go Mad in Dorset, wherein the villains are conveniently overheard saying “secret plans… blah blah blah…. submarine… blah blah blah”. The novel also has the typical British sentimentality about a dog, David Crawfurd’s beloved pet Colin. Yes, a boy and his dog save the British Empire. There are no women in the story, by the way. This absence was common enough in adventure stories aimed at juvenile males who were not yet ready from the soppy stuff; though I do note with amusement that recently one academic bore (the poor dears do have earn tenure by cranking out publish-or-perish articles) has written a piece about the novel’s homoeroticism. Oh dear. As in Buchan’s other thrillers, the hero’s adversaries are fooled in ludicrously easy ways. There is a scene of patent absurdity where the British intelligence officer Captain Arcoll is able to black himself up and pass himself off as Zulu to a band of Zulus. Yeah, right. Just like the British intelligence officer blacking himself up as an Indian in The Three Hostages….
Okay, it’s a juvenile adventure story as unbelievable as most juvenile adventure stories are. But what of the novel’s reprehensible attitudes?
This is a century-old British Imperial fantasy and overt display of racist paranoia. Running underneath it is the author’s bad faith of knowing that the African population is held down by force, but pretending it is for their own good. And beside this, there is the fear that one day the African population – the great majority of South Africa – will be able to organise themselves for self-government. John Laputa is presented as intelligent, handsome, a fine physical specimen – and evil. No good may be imputed to Africans (or “niggers”, to use Buchan’s term of choice) who plot against British rule. But fear not. All will be well if we channel the more intelligent “niggers” into those fine agricultural colleges that we British run, as the closing pages of the novel suggest. There are a number of suggestions that Christian missionaries (and Americans) are corrupting Africans by destroying their “innocence” and making them less pliable. And of course there are many glib generalisations about “the Kaffir mind”. Incidentally, the Portuguese trader Henriques is the stock villainous dago. Not all Europeans are equal, you see.
So it’s shooting fish in a barrel to point out what is wrong with Prester John, isn’t it? I am interested that the copy of Prester John I used to own was published, as recently as the 1960s, in a series intended as school readers. The novel is still in print, but it would have to be a very stupid teacher who now gave it to a class. At this point members of the John Buchan Society may start grumbling about “political correctness gone mad”. But in this case, the PC people would be right. Racist fantasies are not for schoolchildren.
But you must know how I like kicking at current smugness, too. Fantasy computer games depending on chase and kill? Popular novels about schoolboy wizards? Mummy porn? You do realize what inane social assumptions will be seen in all these in a hundred years time, don’t you? We are very superior in seeing what is wrong with ancient bestsellers, but we lap up current ones. Motes and beams.