Sunday, September 29, 2019

67. She and Allan by H. Rider Haggard

I bought this at the Grande Bibliotheque book sale for a buck.  I was vaguely aware of Haggard, mainly through the existence of what is considered one of the all-time worst movies and a general sense that he was quite popular adventure writer back in the day. I also thought this was somehow related to the movie She and will confirm that after writing my review.

It's an odd book, with an odd title.  The plot is pretty straightforward colonialist adventure.  Allan Quatermain is writing his memoirs from when he was a great white hunter in Africa.  He gets sent on a quest by a dwarf wizard to find a white queen who may be able to allow him to speak to the dead.  Already things are kind of weird and spiritual.  The whole impetus is that he felt kind of melancholy and wondered about a woman he had once loved who had died.  The dwarf, it turns out, needs the power of this queen and so sort of compels Quatermain to go on the quest.  With him comes his Hottentot (apologies for the use of this word, which I understand is now considered perjorative; it's the word in the book as well as constantly being referred to as yellow) guide, Hans and later a mighty Zulu warrior king with a huge axe, Umslapogaas. Both these characters are quite cool.  Hans is an expert tracker, always thirsty for gen and constantly dissing Quatermain in obseqious language.  Umslopogass has issues at home with conniving relatives and lives to kick ass in battle.  Quatermain himself is quite funny, as he is super self-deprecating and full of regret about all the ways he has screwed up his life.

The characters' interaction and the adventure itself were quite enjoyable.  There are also long weird spiritual passages that were less enjoyable. It gets quite trippy.  Furthermore, this is all wrapped in the deep, deep racism of the colonial mindset and lots of slaughter of animals (though Quatermain himself is now beyond killing just for sport).  It's just a given that Africa was there as a savage source of wealth, to be depleted.  The humility in Quatermain's character and the supernatural powers that both She and the dwarf have somewhat offset this perspective.  Quatermain is constantly and futilely trying to explain away all the magic shit that happens, which does give a sense that maybe the white man is out of his depth.  An odd, interesting book. I suspect others have done much more serious research into Haggard's work and I will depend on them for further elucidation.  I am glad I read this one and would pick up another if it was a bit tighter and maybe recommended.

(Addendum: this is at least the third book this year where the major plot point is the kidnapping of a virginal young woman, the other two being No Orchids for Miss Blandish and The End of the Night.)


Ron Smyth said...

Haggard was a staple of my adolescent adventure reading and one of the early "lost world" writers. He had practical experience of Africa from the standpoint of British Colonialism and despite the inherent racism of all colonialisms he was much more sympathetic than most at the time. His African characters were genuine heroes in their own right although certainly, like his friend Rudyard Kipling expressed, treated as "half-devil and half-child" and part of the White Man's Burden. I'm not sure we've progressed much considering Trump's treatment of immigrants and America's delusion that it is entitled to determine the governments of Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, Yemen etc. etc. etc.. When one has sold more than 83 million copies of a single book (SHE) and it is not even your most famous work (KING SOLOMON'S MINES is better known) then you are doing something right. With all the telepathy, clairvoyance and occult elements in his work he is probably best considered as a writer of fantasy and his books clearly inspired such other authors as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Talbot Mundy and Robert E Howard that were also favourite writers of my youth.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for that much better context than I provided. I read up on him after writing my review and found that what you wrote generally captures his reputation today. I think my reading of She and Allan suffered from all the other stuff I have read since that he influenced. If I do run into his works again, I will pick up one or two to have a better understanding of his overall line. Thanks