Hamish Steel's Pantheon - 'Because gods are people too…'
SPFBO2017: The First 26 Reviews!

Otared, Graustark and The Winning of Barbara Worth

OtaredOne very modern book and five very old ones. Are there common themes? Is there a pattern?! Not really, no.


Mohammed Rabie's Otared (2016) is a harrowing existential thriller, set in a near-future Cairo. The city has been occupied by a mercenary army - a sort of quasi-Masonic organisation that swept through in a sudden coup with distinctly Cruaderish underpinnings. Cairo persists - everyday life plods along, despite the foreign invaders and the ominous ring of battleships.

Otared is a former policeman who, infuriated by the way the government rolled over, has joined the rebellion. His job is distasteful: assassin, freedom fighter, terrorist - everything in-between. Otared repeatedly asks the same question - how far would you go? - with different nuances and inflections each time. The voiceless people of Cairo are choosing between two - if not 'evils - brutalities. Otared decides what he will do, how far he will go, in the name of a city that he never particularly liked and certainly never liked him. It is particularly telling that the resistence is led neither by civilians nor military, but policemen - who Otared describes less as a public service and more like a necessary evil. 

The whole book is beautifully translated by Robin Moger, with the full horror of these extraordinary events (or, perhaps 'normalised extraordinary events') coming through on every line. It is, in case my own repetition hasn't given it away: incredibly brutal. This is a tough read, and even with the self-awareness that Otared is steeped in metaphor, this is not for the faint of heart. 

[Interested? Mohammed Rabie, Basma Abdel Aziz and Ganzeer are all at the British Library on 16 July for a panel on dystopia for the Shubbak Festival.]

My slow waddle through the 'best books of our time' continues:

The-Dark-FrigateCharles Boardman Hawes' The Mutineers (1919) and Dark Frigate (1923). The former is basically Treasure Island. The latter is basically a boring version of Treasure Island. If you like pirate tales though, The Mutineers is good fun - there's a bit of a learning curve with the language, and some shocking racism, but, other than that... eh. Read Treasure Island

Dark Frigate, I suppose, is more interesting in that it is slightly less about the voyage and the treasure hunt. A properly Stevensonian young man we'll call him Him Jawkins because I can't actually remember his name, plods along, desperate to get to the sea. He's penniless, and heads in-land to survive, thinking that the rural life is easy. It isn't, but he falls into the company of more mature ex-sailors, and with their help, eventually finds a berth. LITTLE DID HE KNOW that his 'friends' are pirates, and before long, he's on the 'wrong' side of the mutiny. The frigate (which is, indeed, dark) ambles around - they're not very good pirates, and things don't go well. Eventually Jawkins achieves some sort of moral awakening, there are fights and trials and such and, uh, he finds a rich grandfather and joins the Civil War. No, seriously. Things get a little weird there at the end. 

If Frigate is interesting (and I'm not sure it is), it is because - first - the formula is truly bizarre, what with the accelerated ending - it simply wouldn't fly with a contemporary book, and even by the standards of children's literature, it is hasty. The closest comparison (and this is odd) was that mediocre The Rule of Four, which triple-jumps to a clumsy conclusion because the (college-aged) authors clearly had no real picture of what actually happens in the world after someone leaves university. Frigate has the same sort of handwaviness about it, like there's a need for a post-sea moral denouement, but no clear picture of what it should be.

Second, Frigate does that sinister conflation of physical appearance and moral worth that we see so often in books of the era (and beyond). Him Jawkins is handsome and straight-limbed THEREFORE he is a hero and THEREFORE everyone recognises him as such, even when he's, say, piratin' about, people are like 'he's too handsome to be a real villain'. It is only right and natural that he is descended from the gentility, because, well, he's hawt. I suppose where the American books of this era are coming to their own (and we'll see this in other books, below) is the casuality. Him Jawkins is handsome therefore he is noble. Rather than the Olde Worlde casuality of 'he is noble, therefore he is handsome'. It is a pretty simple inversion, but makes a difference in the way that America was carving its place out in the world - and how its literature reflected it.

(Dark Frigate won the Newbery Award when it was published, so I'm really out of touch with what the youf of the 1920s wanted.)

GraustarkGraustark (1900) by George McCutcheon Barr brings this to life even more explicitly. Graustark is a 'Zenda'-like adventure (the first of several, although, why?). Our hero is a strapping, square-jawed, manly American fellow, who is very wealthy and doesn't work (but he could if he wanted - Barr is very clear about that). With a manly lust for travel, he goes on all sorts of manly adventures, and eventually is heading back to his manly home to do a manly job of man law. This last leg of the journey, however, comes with a surprise - there's a beautiful young woman sharing his train. Despite his manly heart being too manly for this sort of thing... he falls for her. And her him. Alas, she is only in the country briefly, and after a brief flirtation, she yachts on back to her tiny European principality, Graustark.

There's a bit of grumping, then our hero decides to follow. He's been in the office for (literally!) a day, and dammit, he'd rather be manlying about Europe. Picking up an equally rugged friend along the way, he mans his way over to Graustark and discovers that his twoo love is actually... a princess! Well, that's no barrier to the U-S-of-A, so our hero hikes up his man-pants and dives straight in to Graustarkian politics. There's plenty of adventure, as Graustark really is going through a rough patch. Lots of romantic hand-wringing. And a lot of Gryffindor-style decision-making that involves 'let's do the dumbest thing in the bravest way', which is, for some reason, consistently rewarded. Spoiler: it all works out.

At least Dark Frigate had a vague pretence of being a period piece - and set in England, with Him Jawkins being a pseduo-egalitarian proto-American. Graustark is gleeful jingoism: American exceptionalism, and an (unintentionally) prescient look at the next century's American cultural output. The wee little olde country of Graustark is charming and quaint, but cannot solve its own problems without American ingenuity. Our hero (obviously his name is lost to me, so we'll call him George), couldn't be more openly contemptuous of Graustarkian tradition: at one point, despite the princess openly begging him not to, he drapes himself all over the throne - rubbing his butt on the holy stones of Graustark. This, like all of his crude behaviour, is rewarded: the princess - and rest of Graustark - are delighted that he's arrived to topple their idols. Not that all of the exceptionalism is this 'subtle'. George, for example, is over a head taller than everyone else in Graustark. They literally look up to him, as he is literally the bigger man. The old world is shrinking, it needs new, American blood, etc. etc. 

Yet, Graustark doth protest too much. While it attempts to prove that America is Too Good for This Shit, it simultaneously begs for adoration. The reward is marrying the princess and getting to rule Graustark. The conflict is getting an American the recognition he deserves, because, even if his bloodline isn't proper, it is right. It is, in many senses, wish-fulfilment - both for George-ian readers, and for the country as a whole. 

This all sounds very critical, and, in fairness - it is. A lot of the 'best books' of the early 20th Century really haven't aged well. The quality of the writing (when it is quality) is overwhelmed by dated social views or, frankly, a need to tilt at windmills that no longer exist. That's not to say they've all been rubbish.

Two not-rubbish ones:

Brewster's Millions (1902), also by Barr. This has been filmed a few times (Richard Pryor!), and, rightfully so - it is a great hook that is easily updated. A nice young man inherits a million - and then, in a stroke of morbid 'luck', he then inherits seven million (that's $200m in today's dollars, according to an inflation calculator online). The trick is, he has to be broke to accept it. Brewster has one year to spend his initial million in order to collect the next seven. The challenge has all sorts of tight rules - plus, he can't tell anyone about it. So all of his friends assume he's going crazy, and do their best to stop his wastrel ways...

It is a hoot. It shouldn't be - especially in the trenches of 2017 class war - but Brewster is a blast, and Barr makes the ludicrous money-wasting both aspirational and, oddly, sympathetic. We actually care about Brewster, and, more interestingly, Brewster doesn't actually care about money. He's a romantic, and he's more interested in the challenge and the 'honor' rather than the prize. The book begins, necessarily, rather frivolous, as a send-up of society. But as the event goes on, and his friends - and the media - turn on him, the contest begins to take its toll, and there are, somehow, real emotional stakes involved.

(This is weirdly ripe for a YA remake, if one hasn't happened already. Dibs?)

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911) by Harold Bell Wright  is a Western - and a good one. Worth is the story of a group of people trying to 'claim' a barren patch of the desert. There's a lot of heavy-handed man-vs-nature going on, as noble surveyors and engineers chart the unknown. Nature, however, is never the villain; more an object of vast respect - something so big and so impressive that it is our obligation, our challenge, and our duty to conquer it. If that seems a little heavy-handed, well... wait for it, the titular Barbara Worth? SHE'S BASICALLY THE DESERT, YO. Surveyors and engineers and cowboys and financiers all compete to conquer the desert, but what they're really trying to do (spoiler!) is impress Barbara. METAPHOR.

Pokin' fun is easy (spits tobaccy, eats beans), but Barbara Worth is a worthwhile read. For entertainment purposes, there's some business thriller plotting, as good companies and bad companies fight to stake their claim. There are some set-piece action scenes, with floods and sandstorms and even a (very little ) gunplay. And, of course, there's the romancin' as the men compete for Barbara's affections. It isn't totally predictable, and, even when it gets heavy-handed, I still forgive it for keeping me involved. Like most good Westerns, Barbara Worth realises that the tension comes from the atmosphere - the possibility of danger. Action and conflict are overrated, but the potential of conflict - the awareness that death and disaster could come at any time - that's what makes Barbara Worth exciting.

Unrelated, but, as far as I'm concerned, Barbara chose the wrong chap at the end, and it slightly upsets me how irritated I am. I suppose she had the choice between two metaphors, and darnit, she chose the wrong one.