Number two in the Richard Sharpe series…
This novel depicts Sharpe in the Battle of Assaye in India under the Wellesley, and features a subplot with the asshole sergeant Hakeswill. Notes:
- I still cannot figure out how the casualties and replacements worked in this time period, or how someone could be a lifelong soldier and survive these battles. The casualty percentages are insane, and I am guessing that to be wounded in most ways was a death sentence. I remember reading a German novel about Napoleon’s retreat from Russia and thinking the same thing. So many dead, in a foreign country – the British Army and the East Indian Company must have been constantly recruiting. Visions of plunder must have been what motivated young British and Scottish men to sign up for almost certain death.
- I’m channeling The Clash here…
- The fact that capitalism produces all these folks willing to go murder people in a foreign land is readily apparent. Moving from an agrarian feudal system to industrial capitalism sure created a lot of wealth, but it also seems to have the need to try to seize that wealth into a cultural trope. Cornwell (and I’m assuming that Cornwell is very close to his narrator here, unlike the approach he takes in the Arthur series with his first-person narration) makes clear that Sharpe’s survival and combat skills come from his upraising on the streets of London. He has a recurring vision in this novel about going back to the orphanage where he was constantly humiliated and beaten as an officer to show those bastards what he has become. This is his only motivation for not switching sides when he is offered the opportunity by Lt. Colonel Pohlmann, the “Hanoverian”…
- I’m also getting increasingly frustrated with the portrayal of this British invasion (done by a private company?) as being seen as simply a way for various already-warring Indian sultans to create alliances. It doesn’t take much imagination to see just how powerful and overwhelming the British forces are.
- Perhaps I’m just missing Cornwell’s larger point, which is documentation of all this?
- I almost wish the narrative point of view spent more time with individual sergeants, especially of the Scottish units. Cornwell certainly praises their ability to take casualties and keep moving forward. This view of fighting is so different from our modern perspective that it’s hard for me to imagine. I keep remembering the portrayals of union soldiers in some of Grant’s attempts to pin down and destroy Lee’s army, being depicted by journalists as pinning a piece of paper with their names to their uniforms so that they could be identified when they were dead. Ambrose Burnside feels appropriate here too…
- Is it the distance that makes this cavalier approach seem so repellent? I’m comparing this in some ways to recent war fiction, and none of it seems this intent on celebrating the carnage.
I have read most of Cornwell’s Arthur books, about the Danish invasion of Britain, and having had the Last Kingdom series recommended to me by a friend and watching a couple of them I remembered that I wanted to read this series by Cornwell as well. I enjoyed reading Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and his portrayal of Sgt. Shatoe’s dragoons – especially designed to kill cavalry, according to Shaftoe – and I knew that Cornwell’s Sharpe series was set not all that much later.
That’s a long introduction to this novel, Sharpe’s Tiger, none of which is about the novel. Thoughts:
- I struggle with the idea of Sharpe as super-hero, but I think that Cornwell is using him more as a cypher than an actual British soldier who doubles as 007. He’s not Derfel Cardan, who is based on a historical figure (even one who may or may not have existed), and Derfel felt much more believable.
- Sharpe is simply someone who Cornwell puts in the a bunch of historical hot spots in order to let us as readers see into his portrayal of what happened, and my readerly attempts to make him more are sort of goofy.
- Sharpe reminds me a bit as well of Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds and someone who Stephenson sees as survivor much like Sharpe.
- Cornwell’s battle scenes in this series are not as personal as they are with St. Derfel, mostly because Sharpe is not simply fulfilling a cannon fodder role, whereas Derfel fought in the midst of the shield wall. This also seem a bit more cavalier and glory-bound than the series set in the time of Arthur, perhaps because that time is harder for us contemporary folks to understand.
- I remember particularly the sense of loss and fall of civilization in the Warlord chronicle, mostly because so often they find themselves in a Roman ruin that is far better than anything current Britons can build. Life is much more difficult.
- I also remember the superstitious belief in religion, which Cornwell carefully documents as a struggle between the remains of pagan religion and the newness of Christianity. Christianity looks far more appealing in this re-contexualization than it does now, offering a way forward into a brighter future rather than the nostalgic look back that Christians appear to favor now. In particular, in one scene Arthur’s druids put up a wall that consisted entirely of hexes and fetishes. That wall held their left flank until their enemy finally brought in their own druids to counter it. Not many flanks are held in the Sharpe series by religious icons.
- Cornwell starts this series before the Iraq war and what felt to me like a newfound sense among the American public about the ways that camaraderie fueled courage in combat. He’s writing from a British perspective, and the way that I have always heard British officers talked about (mostly Montgomery, but the Duke of Wellington aka Arthur Wellesley as well) is that they don’t care all that much about their men. Still, this novel is not all that concerned with the loss and grief that individual soldiers feel for each other, nor does it give the sense of individual platoon tactics that made a series like the Malazan Book of the Fallen (or even Game of Thrones) so enthralling. Cornwell did provide this sense in the Warlord Chronicles I’ve discussed above, so maybe that sense of the individual lives at stake becomes more developed as he moves forward. Still, while there is compassion for the individual infantryman and admiration for his courage, troops still pretty much feel like cannon fodder.
- On the other side, though, Cornwell works at making Indians human, pretty carefully depicting the courage and humanity of those who led and those who fought with the British. Far more than in other discussions of this time period I got a sense of the reasons why Indians fought, and they felt much more realistic than I am used to.
- The British are not portrayed as beautiful people either. The first scene with Sharpe gives a vivid description of his looting of a corpse, and looting and rape are not ignored. Blood and destruction are also pretty carefully chronicled.
- Finally, the class divides between officers and enlisted men are not glossed over. Officers actually rarely come off positively, and most enlisted men are described sympathetically. As always, sergeants hold the line between, but they are rarely seen as American, WWII-type sergeants we see in Band of Brothers – determined to keep the men under them alive – but are instead mostly disciplinarians.
Reading this article from Game Studies forced me to think about rules, and the game that I have played recently that seemed most obsessed with rules from a narrative standpoint is The Detail. I won’t go into all the caveats I already discussed about the game sort of sucks (just recall that it wasn’t finished because the developers lost funding), but I hope that one piece of the narrative that definitely would have changed was the ending, which was rushed beyond belief.
Perhaps the biggest impact that The Wire as a series had on me was its willingness to show how everyone is compromised – the police and city government and those who are supposed to be righteous as well as those who are taking advantage of the demand around them in order to improve their own socio-economic standing. The feeling of injustice that happens at the end of the first season when one Barksdale is given a reduced sentence and the police and city council get their pictures in the paper with news of a huge drug bust that we as viewers know was compromised and much less than it could have been felt devastating, as did the union boss’s death at the end of the second season. There is no true justice is an important part of the message of the best of these types of detective fictions.
The Crime Board – know your rules
Rules happen within games, too, and part of the dismay I felt about watching The Detail run off the rails happened when the detectives stumble upon a torture scene. That attempt to make the criminals look less than human was too obvious, too clearly set within a rule set that says that bad guys must do really bad things. This sort of easy moralizing was something that The Wire intentionally avoided.
In reading for the essay I’m writing on Kentucky Route Zero I have been trying to pick up everything I can from literary the genres that the developers Cardboard Computer pull from. That includes Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy, although I cannot imagine two more dissimilar narratives. Thoughts:
- The most straightforward approach to thinking of this novel is to consider it a meditation on living life without love of any sort. That approach works to explain Lester Ballard.
- It skips, however, the reasons why Lester is like this. We get a bit of his backstory, but why he is driven out of town is a story that we don’t get.
- That gap, I think, allows us as readers to fill in our own backstory, and thereby read Lester as we want to read him. Depraved, evil, barely human, either made that way from the womb or gradually transformed into such because of those who raised him – either way, he’s a cipher, someone we can paint our own worldly perspective on.
- The landscape also serves as a sort of cipher. It’s set in Tennessee, and while I think of east Tennessee in particular as beautiful, Smoky Mountain-dominated set of valleys and rivers and ledges and hardwood trees, a reader can clearly view it instead as a harsh landscape that takes a toll on its inhabitants. Again, the approach is yours.
- Thinking of Lester as being on a journey seems ridiculously hippieish (and it is). The journey is one of depravity and anti-socialness to an extreme, showing the gradual breakdown of someone who simply cannot play well with others.
- So, then, why does McCarthy write this shit? George Saunders in an interview said that he writes in order to show that the world is a cruel place and that he finds worth in understanding how people understand and deal with that cruelty, but I never get the sense that McCarthy gives a shit about that.
- Is it redemption? Uh, no. No one in this novel, or hell, nearly any novel of his besides maybe The Road gets any sort of redemption. Lester dies as miserably as he lived, and we as readers don’t even get the benefit of learning some sort of moral lesson – treat people right or they become monsters, or something like that.
- Is it a sociological/ethnographic study? If so, I’m not sure what we can learn, except that some people can only relate to dead people, after they have fucked them. I’m hoping that’s a small demographic.
- And yet the novel made me laugh a couple of times, and I had trouble putting it down. I’m not sure what that says about me…
And of course James Franco made it into a movie…
Zero History is the third of the Blue Ant series by Gibson (who is called by a commenter on Goodreads the “Jay-Z of his generation of science fiction writers”), and I am guessing the wrap-up, as Hubertus Bigend (pronounced by most folks like the French word it is) and Milgrim finish the novel skipping off the ocean (not literally, but sort of) in an ekranoplan. Some thoughts:
- There are not many authors who can write a novel about fashion and secret branding that will keep me interested, let alone turning the pages more quickly than I should in order to find out what happens.
- His ability to describe detail in fascinating, witty, and astonishing ways does not fade. He violates the writer’s rule all the time by telling way more than he shows, but man, he does it so beautifully that I keep reading.
- Zero History as a title feels a bit misleading, since the novel features lots of history of brand design in unfolding its plot, and the characters all have history with each other. My guess is that the zero history comes in the idea of secret branding, which fits closely with what Gibson features in other novels: underground economies, avoiding corporate control, producing beautiful design and through them art.
- I am really curious about Milgrim and should probably re-read the first two novels in the series – I think he is Gibson’s attempt to produce a character who is able to chameleon around several of the issues that fascinate Gibson – addiction, cool-hunting, idiot savant art and design.
- In some ways Gibson’s novels feel so light and airy anymore that they threaten to float away, like the surveillance balloons the characters in this novels use. Happy endings happen, for instance, and lots of folks are able to make lots of money and stay afloat in this nether economy.
- My response, though, is that I enjoy reading these novels for this very reason – creating a dystopia is easy – looking at the world through the lens of it incrementally improving the ways in which most people live their lives, and doing so through art and non-corporate ways, feels much more difficult.
Mieville’s novels always feature brilliant ideas, and he uses what a friend calls the ‘wring every last bit of emotion out of a scene’s’ technique incredibly well. Thoughts:
- I sometimes get bogged down in the plots, and perhaps that’s because his characters feel sort of cold to me. I think that Perdido Street Station is still my favorite because the characters were so odd and yet so tinged in a 1930sish steampunk ecosystem that I felt their cause. New Paris and City and City didn’t quite involve me in the same way. The fact that Mieville’s novels tend to be short might be his own interest in not worrying about world-building but instead focusing on the possibilities of literature and fantasy and science fiction.
- That being said, this is a far different alternative WWII text. It moves between two narrators, and an American who goes to a meeting with surrealists (Andre Breton is there, among others) who are trying to figure out what resistance means in their ideology, creates a device that harnesses their energy, and then sees that device stolen and sold in Paris. It explodes, transforming Paris into a place where art comes to life, and surrealist art comes to life in frightening ways.
- Some resistance fighters (not Free French, who are too committed to the status quo) are manifestation (manif) friendly, and have figured out how to work with them. True to their ‘nature’, these manifs are not all that interested in anything but destruction.
- Of course, it’s the surrealist art that fights Nazis. The mainstream stuff only serves to uphold the status quo.
- And, in a twist that I’m not sure about, the Nazis – trying to fight the manifs – somehow work with an evil Catholic priest to involve the forces of Hell.
- Greil Marcus also had this fascination with Dadaism and the Situationists, and Mieville’s obsession with ways to remake our culture more humanely wanders off on all kinds of paths. I feel this same push-and-pull, and I struggle with it – disruption comes with costs, and sometimes the disruptionist occupies a privileged position that allows them to avoid consequences.
- One of Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy posited this directly. I think it happens in Count Zero, but a hacker destroys a banking system, in the name of both disruption and stealing money, and subsequently devotes all his time to helping people after watching news reports of the civil wars those banking failures caused in the developing world.
- Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon also queries this dilemma. In it a group of hackers form a data haven that makes them a lot of money. Pure criminal situationist disruption, right? But they actually use the money to create an anti-genocide force, one that hearkens back to the Good War (WWII), and thus at least demonstrates an awareness of the fact that disruption has consequences.
- Mieville is clearly aware of all this as well, and my guess is that’s why he includes the forces of hell, making sure that at least one of his signifiers is clear.
- Another fascinating (to me anyway) feature of Mieville’s fiction is his interest in flesh/machine/digital/chronological borders. What we think of as monsters are not necessarily monsters in his created worlds, and in this novel the manifs are only monsters if you are not one of them.
- As with all utopias (or even dystopias), none of this can last. The cataclysmic event at the end of the novella dooms New Paris, and even the appearance of a manifested Hitler (he loved pastels) cannot stop the Surrealist revolution from imploding.
- One more contradiction that Mieville seems to delight in is his love of the city. The fact that he does not romanticize urban areas leads him to dance along the edge of reveling in the spectacle of crime (for instance) and even idealizing the urban poor’s ability to survive economic hardship without (again) worrying about the consequences. Clearly I am concerned about – one might say a bit obsessed with – consequences, and subsequently, I guess, I admire Mieville’s approach while worrying about the joy he takes in the spectacle.
I have been wanting to read Metro 2033 for a long time, and finally did it. It had a beautifully gloomy ending, being Russian of course…
- I am not an expert on Russian fiction – I have essentially read what I’m supposed to read from the canon of Russian lit according to the West, with the addition of the Arkady and Bulgakov. Still, I am struggling to imagine a more cataclysmic and typical Russian ending than this…
- Artyom discovers at the very end that the Dark Ones are actually mutated humans who can survive the hellscape, and who want to help the rest of humanity.
- The humans kill them anyway, and Artyom essentially commits suicide.
- In the Metro all different types of ideologies have recreated themselves – capitalists, fascists, communists. Glukhovsky treats each differently, although he I think demonstrates some nostalgia for the very first days of the Revolution as Red Army partisans rescue Artyom from the fascists.
- The novel takes no joy in being able to negotiate the dystopia, unlike lots of Western novels. The stalkers (those who go to the surface for supplies) are manly men, without a doubt, and represent idealized masculinity, but they mostly run from the creatures on the surface.
- The mutants are imaginative, with Librarians turned into frightening werewolves almost who still don’t like noise in the library.
- There are lots of attempts among the Metro residents to address their existential crises. Artyom meets all kinds of folks and has all kinds of dreams, most of which are nightmares. Some of the philosophers are barely disguised, and anyone who is not hyper-masculine and who meets Artyom dies.
- My guess is that Glukhovsky is less interested in philosophy than he is interested in understanding how humanity got here…