by George MacDonald Fraser
336 pages, Plume
Review by Kate Kasserman
For those unfamiliar with Fraser’s Flashman series, these books (a dozen or so, I think) document the fictional adventures of Harry Flashman as time and again luck plops him in the thick of pretty much every disastrous military engagement available to a Victorian Englishman (of which there are rather a lot) and then pulls him out not only alive but covered in glory. The glory, by the way, is fully unearned; Flashman is about as dire a human specimen as can be imagined: cowardly and abusive, disloyal and opportunistic, predatory of women, a fawning “toady” (his word) who gets ahead by knowing how to lick the right boots in the right way. Flashy is utterly unapologetic – well, in his memoirs anyway, where it won’t cost him any laurels. And he is very funny…as long as you can see the funny in the most appalling, cold-blooded, selfish high-handedness that a nineteenth-century military Englishman caricature can produce, which is considerable.
I will sum Flashy up with a brief anecdote from the first book in the series (not this one). Being annoyed by the pretensions of a fellow officer, Flashy seduced the man’s mistress, and, when challenged to a duel (Flashman is good at foreign languages, horseback riding, and wheedling women into bed, and that’s about it – marksmanship, no) by the sharpshooting fellow he offended, Flashy bribes one of his own lickspittles to load the sharpshooter’s pistols WITHOUT BULLETS (Flashy gets bullets, of course). Then afterwards he doesn’t pay the lickspittle his promised fee. (Flashman’s shot goes wild and is taken for a particularly stylish form of deloping, to the amazement and approbation of all.) So – you get the picture.
A great narrative advantage of Flashy’s total focus on his own skin and reputation is that he is fairly even-handed in dishing out contempt – which is probably a pretty good way to get a solid baseline sense of most conflicts, along with contempt in general being amusing to read.
Flashman in the Great Game is somewhere in the middle of the series; when I bought it, I thought it was book #2, which it is not. I suppose I ran into some technical spoilers about events in the intermediate books, but I remain blithely unconcerned – it’s hard for events to be spoilered when the ultimate result is, always, a fait accompli anyway! The particular horrors detailed here are from the 1857 rebellion in India. Flashy, much against his inclination, is sent on a special mission to investigate Disconcerting Signs in India. Of course he has no interest in Disconcerting Signs, but it doesn’t take long for them to turn into bloody and dreadful events. Really dreadful.
So dreadful, in fact, that a strange thing happens in this book. I mean, Fraser consistently shows a melancholic awareness of the horror of things, of humanity in general and war in specific, in his writing. But in Flashman in the Great Game, it clearly gets to him, and consequently to Flashman, who shows some uncharacteristic sympathy and even a few aberrant moments of altruism towards both Indians and English. (For a measure of how grim the atrocities were, take this: at the time, an enraged Mr. Charles “I am sensitive and all about big-eyed orphans” Dickens advocated pretty much turning India into a lifeless desert, salting its earth for a thousand years with the blood of its people; this gives you a fair inkling, I think, of the level of sickening savagery inflicted by both sides. Massacres of children. Executions via tying people to the front of cannons and then blasting through their bodies. It goes on; but I will not.)
I remain of two minds whether this slip of the dispassionate mask makes this one of the better Flashman books or a particularly flawed one. It’s a question I don’t intend to resolve. Some questions are better left open, after all; resolution can be a nasty business.