Friday, 19 July 2013
Prester John - John Buchan
Odd that I should re-read, in the space of a week, two stories which I hated when forced to read them at school when I was twelve or thirteen; odder still that I should have bought both at the same time from my favourite bookshop, Skoob, underneath the Brunswick Centre in London. The other, of course, was 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', which I didn't realise was in The Prussian Officer.
As a kid, it was the African names that put me off Prester John - typically, one of the reasons I like it so much now. It takes some nerve to call your main location Blaauwildebeestefontein without batting an authorial eyelid. And it's not as if Buchan was writing to a captive readership; this, in 1910, was his first bestseller.
Then, of course, the action and the issues were contemporary. The last Boer War was only a few years ago and everyone would know (unlike me) about Beyer's masterstroke with the guns at the Wolkberg. Not that it matters, though it is essential to read Buchan with an Edwardian eye. He is unashamedly imperialist, but so was his world. A purist would say he is racist. I am not so sure. He certainly patronises the natives but his hero, Crawfurd, repeatedly stresses the need to improve things for the Africans and he attacks those who exploit them. The race he really despises is the Portugoose [sic], in the person of Henriques, who encourages a native rising purely to get his hands on their treasure. Laputa, the 'heir of John', the would-be emperor, epitomises the noble savage. His word can be relied upon. His fall - literally - is an heroic end.
What people forget about Buchan is how good he was at maintaining the pace of an adventure. Prester John is all action and fairly bowls along. It's a Boys' Own adventure for slightly older boys.