Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Allan Quatermain by H Rider Haggard

I'll be honest, I wasn't quite sure how to approach this review. But to give a little bit of back story, I picked up my copy of Allan Quatermain by H Rider Haggard out of a bargain bin of books that were about to be thrown away. It was a very pretty copy with a red, cloth-bound cover finished with gilt embossed lettering. Printed in 1894 – so it's a bit of a collector’s item. The only problem is that it's somewhat water damaged, but oh what beautiful paper, typography, and illustrations – if you're a bibliophile you'll no doubt agree with me.

I've always wanted to read Haggard’s stories, but I hadn't had the opportunity, so I thought, what the heck. I saw a film adaption of the books many years ago (the 1980s, okay? I'm that old) and felt it was a bit of a cheap Indiana Jones knockoff, but it's always fun to go to the source material, so here we are.

Oh boy, was I in for a ride. (I'm in a punny mood, so bite me.) I always knew that the author was problematic – I just didn't fully realise how problematic. As one of my fellow authors said, Haggard’s writing hasn’t, ahem, aged well – and that's putting it mildly. 

We join Mr Quatermain and his two mates when they embark on their last hurrah in deepest darkest Africa – with emphasis on dark – in a gloriously jingoistic exploration of parts unknown, chock full of half-naked savages thirsting for the blood of white Englishmen. After a stop at the last homely house – oopsie, sorry, this is not Middle-Earth – Quatermain and co. hang out for a bit with some missionary dude before they hie off into terra incognito. Why? Because, wonders upon wonders, they’ve heard that there is this mysterious ‘civilised’ white tribe out there. Which, after many trials and tribulations, they reach their destination. And oh, yes, there is indeed this white tribe of heathens. But their arrival causes unintended political upheaval which they then solve (white saviour much?) so there's romance and plenty of bloodshed and intrigue… And glorification of ye old British Empire, old chap.

Look, Haggard’s writing delivers quite a cracking adventure, but oh my dog, the casual racism, the jingoism, the chauvinism… If you can look past that, you may enjoy this novel. In my estimation, this book is a curious cultural artefact of a bygone era, espousing largely irrelevant, outdated, and frankly offensive mores. This is a prime example of a time capsule in a tradition of literary exoticism.

I still think Indiana Jones is better. This is a hill I will die on.

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