"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The great Victorian poultroon rides again
Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Flashman on the March
By George MacDonald Fraser
HarperCollins, 293 pp, 17.99 pounds

Thirty-five years after he first skulked into the pages of (faux) history, Harry Flashman, the greatest hero of the British Empire's Victorian era, returns in George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman on the March.

The 12th packet of the notorious Flashman Papers tells the tale of Flashman's role in the Abyssinian War of 1868, and once again the author whom Auberon Waugh called "20 times better than Ian Fleming" is in fine swashbuckling form with his 19th-century protagonist best described as the anti-James Bond.

Fraser lifted the character of Harry Flashman from the pages of Thomas Hughes' 1857 chronicle of Rugby School, Tom Brown's School Days, as a means of escaping the toil and drudgery of a journalism career.

Posing as the editor of the late Gen. Flashman's candid, tell-all memoirs, only recently found in manuscript form at an estate sale, Fraser gives us the hero's first-person eyewitness account of some of the major events and important people of 1800s.

In his 1969 debut, Flashman, Fraser tells the tale of how young Harry is kicked out of Rugby School for drunkenness and convinces his father to buy him a commission in Lord Cardigan's 11th Light Dragoons. Thus began the most astonishing military career in literature since that of Homer's Achilles.

Flashman relates Harry's considerably larger-than-life exploits as he fights a duel, is wed, leaves the regiment for the British East India Company Army and survives the historic disaster of the retreat from Kabul only to become the only heroic survivor--found wrapped in a bloody Union Jack no less--of the battle of Pipers Fort. Decorations and fame follow, launching young Lt. Flashman on the road to adventure and success.

It sounds like boilerplate Boy's Own adventures by way of G.A. Henty and H. Rider Haggard, but the comic catch is that Flashman is a complete fraud. The duel is fixed, the wedding is of the shotgun variety and his survival in India is the result of his shameless and admitted cowardice, villainy and dishonesty. He is every inch the bully of Tom Brown's School Days and more. As editor of the Flashman Papers, Fraser frequently points out that the only speck of honesty in Flash Harry is in his appalling accuracy in recalling his own sins. Though an honest observer, he is by his own admission a bounder and a cad whose only interests are drinking, fornication, filling his own pockets and protecting his ill-deserved reputation as a hero.

Further installments in the series over the next 30 years have put Flashman at the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Indian Mutiny, the first Sikh War, Rorke's Drift, the Taiping rebellion and John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry. At various times Flashman is duped, dragooned or blackmailed into working as an intelligence agent, slaver, wagon scout, chief of staff to the White Rajah of Sarawak, sergeant-general to the queen of Madagascar, horse trader and imposter of royalty among other unlikely occupations for a professional scoundrel. As a spiritual forefather to Forrest Gump, Flashman meets all the notables of his era, from Abraham Lincoln and Kit Carson to Otto Von Bismarck and Sherlock Holmes.

Flashman on the March brings us more of the same as Flashman, on the dodge from an enraged German admiral for seducing his grandniece, finds a unlikely escape route through an old school chum now in the foreign service who thinks bluff, tough Flash Harry is just the man to escort a cool half million in silver dollars from Trieste, Italy, to Her Majesty's Army in Abyssinia, the funds being needed to bankroll Gen. Sir Robert Napier's campaign to free a group of British captives from the mad King Theodore.

Despite Flashman's best efforts to bow out of the campaign gracefully, Napier decides the newcomer's reputation for derring-do makes him just the fellow to send on a secret mission to recruit the savage tribes of Southern Abyssinia as allies. Flashman's arsenal of lechery, treachery, poltroonery, deceit and dereliction of duty serve him well as he traipses across the landscape guided by a beautiful and deadly claimant to a savage throne, goes over one of the world highest waterfalls, becomes boy toy to a barbarian queen with a habit of throwing enemies to her pet lions, and the last friend to a mad, doomed monarch.

As always, Fraser's careful historical research and meticulous footnoting make the books educational, as well as vastly entertaining reading.

Being the first full novel in the series in 11 years, Flashman on the March is bound to delight the faithful followers of Flash Harry and may well win over new fans. At the same time however, it is certain to cause a certain amount of frustration among longtime fans who have been hoping for years for a book concerning Flashman's misadventures in the American Civil War and Mexican revolution. Fraser has mentioned in many of the earlier books that Flashman fought for both the Union and Confederacy, and Flashman on the March begins with his departure from Mexico after the execution of Emperor Maximillian, to whom he had been aide-de-camp despite earlier deserting from the French Foreign Legion. Flashman's Civil War and Mexican adventures have been alluded to so often in the various volumes that one wonders if Fraser doesn't already have the books plotted and merely waiting to be fleshed out.

Or maybe those manuscripts from the estate just have some missing pages.

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