Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Foreign Familiar of "King Solomon's Mines"

Like the India of Kipling's Kim, Haggard's South Africa of his Allan Quatermain novels is a "normative" literary experience, establishing the landscape and personalities for the place. Here, the web is deeper, though not necessarily more profound, than recognizing a Hungarian melody in Brahms or Italy in Radcliffe.  In King Solomon's Mines (1885) Allan Quatermain, the narrator, describes himself as a guide to Lord Chelmsford during the Zulu War, and various other principals in that conflict are named in passing. The races of the indigenous characters and geography of settlements are specified with chalky precision, as befits an aspiringly realistic narrative textured by its plot. (Mercifully, the Wikipedia pages for the Zulu War and related events in British colonialism are well-written, at the time of this post. A more thorough treatment--perhaps a volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire?--would probably be worthwhile reading.)

Adherence to the mores of its period is boilerplate for literature of all ages.  No one, reading a Victorian novel, should be scandalized when black characters are inferiors; women are weak creatures rescued by noble defenders; elephants are slaughtered by the half-dozen; a tomb is raided of its treasure. Indeed, the strangeness of each license, assumed to be shared with its reader, reminds me how fortunate we are for the last hundred years (though we might yet need another century) for rights gained and protections conferred. Perhaps Haggard crafted a story more pleasing to my modern sensibilities?

Alas, I was distressed how completely Quatermain's basic journey conformed to the expectations developed by other, generally later, adventure fictions. The narrow regard for native underlings rings hollow, but true to form. (When a Zulu is sundered by an elephant:  "'Ah, well,' [Good] said presently 'he is dead, but he died like a man!'".) The final episode, when the companions entering the diamond mine, follows a predictable arc.  (Surprise!  Someone shuts them in.  They get out.)  Sir Henry's brother is discovered in an unlikely, though narratively convenient, location.  (On the road home.) Indiana Jones, at least, has humor.

Of course, Haggard may not deserve so much blame. The faults of time break strangely, and predicting the lines are beyond the capabilities of men. One of my favorite novels, published a few years later, is Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae (1889), a historical "thriller" (may predate the coinage of that sense).  Stevenson's composition and plotting are defter, but a world might have seen it be the lesser work. Not mine, never!, nor this one.

The adventures of Allan and his companions are continued through Allan Quatermain (1887), which I am now reading, and further volumes, which I may or may not read. The virtue of this light, aged, antiquated fiction is relief between more serious endeavors, and the want of cheap filler between George Meredith (always rewarding reading; next up: Beauchamp's Career) and Henry James (now reading The Portrait of a Lady) may cause me to follow the novels to the tomb-raiding, woman-rescuing, big-game-hunting finale.

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