Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Review: Greenmantle by John Buchan

Full title: Greenmantle (novel) 
Writer: John Buchan 
First published: 1916 
Available: digitally on Project Gutenberg; in print on Amazon 

Quote: "There could never be a Superman. But there might be a Superwoman..."

I have never read The Thirty-Nine Steps, I'm ashamed to say, so Greenmantle was my first acquaintance with Buchan's hero Richard Hannay. I called him a prat on Twitter after about 1/4 of the book and he is, sometimes. First of all, you do sometimes want to kick him in his seating area for being a South African of his time (I'm sure you get what that means without me spelling it out). Second, he's obviously intended to be a forthright, brave and sympathetic chap and like all such heroes, he suffers a bit from what I like to call the "Harry Potter Syndrome", meaning that you have a main character who, while clearly beloved by the author, is irrefutably the most boring character in the book.

What more is, he tends to describe everything in detail. "Tell don't show", seems to be Mr Buchan's motto. In fact, it's a little like an old-fashioned school paper at times. Like an "What I Did For My Holiday: Went to Erzerum"-essay by Richard Hannay, age 12. "First we went to Lisbon and the weather was narsty. I had clams for dinner. They were good."

You get the picture, right?

That aside, it's still a page turner. I admit Mr Buchan makes a little too much use of coincidence – whenever someone walks out onto the street or crawl down a hole, they meet someone they know, be it London, Lisbon or Constantinople. Still, I'm willing to overlook that as he also does a good job of entertaining you (if you only learn to skim Hannay's step-by-step account of everything but his toilet visits).

The story is written right after the events described – the main historical event in it is the siege and capture of Erzerum and since it was published already in 1916, Buchan must have written it right after it happened. The main plot is based on Germany's attempt to start a jihad in the Middle East and Central Asia, and isn't all that far-fetched, if you're familiar with the factual background. In fact, Buchan is remarkably well-informed (but then he was very well-connected).

The villain is a villainess in the fine old tradition of megalomaniac bad guys and gals. The sad truth is that she comes across as much less of a female stereotype than most modern female villains, most likely due to the sex-lessness of the Good Old Boys-style of writing (the characters probably exist between the waist and their knees, but I think they're smooth and plastic, kinda like Barbie and Ken).

Hannay is the main character, but I would argue that the hero is Sandy Arbuthnot, who knows everyone in every bar from here to Kabul and goes undercover in a skin cap and stained eyebrows, and commands a whole band of awesome dancing Turkish gypsies (yes, I know. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't have to; it's a swashbuckling adventure!). However, maybe I'm paranoid, but I was so strongly reminded of Francis Crawford (Lymond of Dorothy Dunnett's books) by sensitive, genius, polyglot, madcap, ballad-quoting and most assuredly Scottish Sandy that I think it simply cannot be a coincidence. DD, I'm onto you!

Right, to sum up this rambling attempt at a review: fun, swashbuckling adventure with extraordinary period flavour that should be avoided if you can't overlook period-typical imperialistic-swine attitudes.

I gave it 4/5 on Goodreads.

1 comment:

  1. Your blog seems very sympathetic. Please tell me what you think of my take on Greenmantle - http://pvewood.blogspot.ro/2014/02/reading-john-buchan-when-sick.html


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