Saturday, August 28, 2021

52. Greenmantle by John Buchan

I am writing this review a few weeks after actually having finished reading the book.  I was having some trouble typing for long stretches so had to take a break.  I've read a few John Buchan books and it is only now that I am starting to understand the culture from which he comes that makes some elements of his book really weird.  It's not that complicated.  It's basically imperialistic jingoism but of a very specific period before we fully appreciated the enormity of World War I, so not always easy to parse for this modern reader.

Greenmantle is at its core a straight ahead espionage story.  Richard Hannae and a few of his other public school colleagues (and a rough-hewn Afrikaaner tracker) are sent into middle Europe in disguise to discover the source of rumours of some kind of prophet who will  unite the Moslem allies of Germany and turn the tide of the war.  There are several really exciting sequences such when he is on the run in the German countryside or trying to maintain his identity while being heavily scrutinized by an enemy agent.  There are also several really weird sections made weirder by the war is glory/just good sport that all men long for propaganda.  The reaction of the heroes to the female antagonist is also really twisted and full of bizarre sexual dread.  There is a very good piece here on the book that goes into in much better depth that is worth reading if you are interested.

One of the things that I found particularly difficult to swallow was how all these various British public school boys could not only go completely undercover in Arabic cultures, but also end up as their spiritual leaders.  It really is the stupidest kind of colonial "privilege".  Still, most of Greenmantle is really fun, just keep your critical monocle on as you read it.

1 comment:

Kate M. said...

This was one of my dad's favourite books. I never read it until fairly recently, and while it has the flaws of its time, I think Buchan foresaw the resurgence of Islam as a political force in a way that many didn't. I mean, think of all those 1960s photos of street scenes in places like Kabul with women in modern dress, all the western self-congratulatory stuff about how those places had seen the light, and then – pow, the Ayatollah. It wouldn't have surprised Buchan.