The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, July 25, 2005


Frederick Forsyth recently presented a half-hour programme on R4 on John Buchan, celebrating his life and writing, and trying to clear of him of the charge of racism, especially anti-semitism, which apparently dogs his reputation. It doesn't appear to have been archived on the BBC site, which is a shame because it was extremely well done. Forsyth may be an ardent royalist and arch-conservative, but his breezy enthusiasm is refreshing.

The infamous passage is from early in The 39 Steps, where Hannay's confidant tells him that, as with every conspiracy, if you chisel away at it long enough you will find the prime mover, the evil genius, is "a little white-faced Jew...with an eye like a rattlesnake". The description is extended and particularly vitriolic, so striking that one wonders what on earth it is doing in a novel which otherwise is a romp. Buchan did write it in haste (it shows) and one wonders how much revision he put into it, and if he had, whether he'd have had second thoughts.

Forsyth was at pains to absolve Buchan in both his life (friends who were Jews; exemplary conduct in private and public) and writing (views expressed are those of characters, which shouldn't be taken to reflect Buchan's own - fair enough). One of his talking heads (if one can use that term of radio) maintained that Prester John, which is set mostly in South Africa and involves the foiling of an attempted black - Kaffir, in the book - uprising by David Crawfurd, a young, enterprising Scot, was in fact very sympathetic towards native grievances and made a genuine hero out of Laputa, their leader.

I began reading Prester John in about 1984, and have just finished it (lost my father's old Nelson edition in the school canteen, which explains the 20-year hiatus). The writing is as good as one would expect, rising to excellent in places (Buchan is particularly strong at extended passages of solitary hardship) though the story leans in places on King Solomon's Mines, and there are times when credibility is seriously strained. There's no doubt that Laputa, the Prester John of the title, is energetically and sympathetically portrayed, but it's done with an underlying tone of condescension. It finally comes to the surface here:

"Yet it was an experience for which I shall ever be grateful, for it turned me from a rash boy into a serious man. I knew then the meaning of the white man’s duty. He has to take all risks, recking nothing of his life or fortunes, and well content to find his reward in the fulfilment of his task. That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies. I learned much of the untold grievances of the natives, and saw something of their strange, twisted reasoning. Before we had got Laputa’s army back to their kraals, with food enough to tide them over the spring sowing, Aitken and I had got sounder policy in our heads than you will find in the towns, where men sit in their offices and see the world through a mist of papers."

There’s so much in this statement which one can applaud: self-sacrifice, indifference to hardship, a taste for relentless hard work, all in the pursuit of an ideal far beyond individual gain - the values of Kipling, Empire and The Breed; yet it's fatally compromised by something that Andy McNab revealed about working undercover for the SAS in Northern Ireland: you can have understanding - near-total understanding - of the other, without sympathy. The barriers stay up, however close one gets to them.

Buchan had an undoubted talent with words, but it seems to me he relied on it too much to tide him over weaknesses in plot, motivation, structure. I’d really like to read something where for once he takes his time - The Courts of the Morning, perhaps? - or some of his short stories, where the demands and dangers of the novel ("It is the length that kills" - RLS) are absent.


At 25 July 2005 at 17:24 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Crikey that statement about "the white man's burden" was pretty scary stuff. Perhaps fairly typical of contemporary writing? Even so, it just goes to show what attitudes were like in colonialist-imperialist times.

If you want a more thoughtful work by Buchan, which is beautifully and lyrically written (though I'm not quite sure what was the philosophical point he was trying to make), try The Blanket of the Dark, which is about a scion of a near-royal family in the early stages of the dissolution of the monasteries.

At 5 August 2005 at 22:42 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buchan was an interesting character. Andrew Lownie's fairly recent biography (originally pub. Canongate, but I think republished by Random House) is one of the best studies. And for Buchan in full narrative and psychological flow, I think that the best possible book is Sick Heart River, in which the prospect of terminal illness causes his recurring character Sir Edward Leithen (incidentally about the most autobiographical of Buchan's creations...) to seek an honourable death in Canada - where Buchan himself died as Governor General. Sick Heart River is available in a fantastic anthology called The Leithen Stories, published by Canongate, which has the whole range of Buchan's work - from the early, relatively unsophisticated plot of The Power House, through the frankly weird The Dancing Floor and John Macnab, which despite a somewhat tedious subplot about the rights and responsibilities of property is, au fond, Buchan's best comedy. But Sick Heart River is worth the cost of the anthology on its own.



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