Sunday, March 24, 2013

Terrible People are Terrible Protagonists

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In the last few days, I read nine (it got up to nine) female authors in a row. Let's hear it for the talented women! Women write YA! Women write fiction critical of oppressive regimes! Women write syndicated comic strips! (I read a For Better or Worse retrospective.)  Women write!  And now for something completely different:

She fought like fury, naked as she was, and only when I got home a few good cuts did she try to run for it. I hauled her away from the door, and only after a vicious struggle I managed to rape her–the only time in my life I have found it necessary, by the way.”

Fuck you, Harry Flashman of the Flashman series. Fuck you, George MacDonald Fraser. Your book was boring before your protagonist raped an Afghani woman. After that, the only reason I kept reading it was because I was on the bus and I didn't have any other books with me. Of course, raping a woman was another day at the races for Harry Flashman. Or another day of being racist. It's all the same. Flashman is “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, and a coward” and he says so on the first page. I should have set the book on fire then. (Always believe men when they describe themselves.  Women put themselves down inaccurately, e.g. "I'm fat," but men's self-critiscism is usually apt.  For example, my downstairs neighbor once told me he was stupid.  He was right on.)  But I was excited to read Flashman because it appeared to be a slightly raunchy tale of swashbuckling and derring-do, or so said the cover and jacket copy. It has boobs on it. And swords. And Early Victorians on horses. How could you not want to read a book like that? The problem is: If a man is a yellow-bellied coward, he's going to spend most of his time running away from the action and not performing feats and adventuring nobly across the land. So Flashman doesn't do much. He gets into kerfuffles, but other, nobler, better people (who don't like him much) always save him at the last minute.

Harry Flashman is the bully in Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days. I haven't read Tom Brown's School Days but it's too old and thick to appear appealing. I like it when authors riff on other people's characters. Wishing for Tomorrow, one of the best books ever written, Mark Twain's Sherlock Holmes, Rebecca. It's fans writing for fans. Maybe I should have read Tom Brown's School Days first. Maybe Tom Brown is a yellow-bellied coward at Oxford.

My favorite book of adventure and romance is Shadow of the Moon by M. M. Kaye, which is, like Flashman, set in the Raj. But you have to travel from England to swashbuckle in India. Flashman does that by way of getting kicked out of school and whining around the house until his father buys him an officer's commission. He picks a regiment just back from India so that he won't be sent there, but after fighting a duel (I like the swashbucklement of duels, but they often end badly, don't they, Eugene Onegin??), he is sent in disgrace to a regiment serving in one of the grayer places of Scotland, where he fornicates with a local notable's daughter and gets himself kicked down to the Subcontinent. He picks up some Hindoostani, spears a dog with a lance, and becomes a general's aide, and it's off up the Khyber pass, blah blah, not much, mission to deliver a message, important local chieftain, entertains him with dancing girls, he likes the look of one, she's sent into his room, and because she doesn't want to be there or touch him, he's forced to rape her, “...the only time in my life I have found it necessary, by the way.” Uh huh.  During the disastrous 1842 British winter retreat from Afghanistan where an army a of 4,500 and 12,000 civilians died on the way out of Kabul, Flashman gets a lady's tent and climbs under her blankets. She tells him to get out, that he's not a gentleman and he goes. He's afraid she'll, “...cry rape all over the camp,” which she should. 

 He does get dangled over a snake pit for his troubles. His Afghani victim's fiancee did not approve of the whole business. He almost dies, but Akbar Khan, the leader of the rebel force, stops the snake-pitting, just as he's about to be pulled in. So Flashman kills the torture dwarf. That's it. He's a terrible person. Don't read this book. Read something better.

1 comment:

  1. Yikes. I figured there was lots cultural misogynism in those books, but I didn't expect it was so blatant. Older men love those books! Gross.