Prussian sadists and the filthy Portugoose

The Buchan Papers by J.D.F. Jones Harvill, pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
I braced myself against the wall with my hands and he hopped, light as a duiker, on to my back, then scrambled on to my shoulders. Very cautiously, muttering to himself in his lingo and hanging on to my scalp, he settled his velskoen on my shoulders and levered himself, inch by inch - I couldn't risk looking up - until he was standing, full length."

Two more attempts to escape from the villainous Prussian Major's private cull and then - "Again, the scrabbling feet, the curses, the groans, then a stifled yelp of triumph, a pause, as though to muster a last, death- defying effort, a violence of scuffling and grasping and - silence. I looked up and, sure enough, he was straddling the wall."

P.D.James's Cordelia Grey did as much, unhoisted, to escape from a well in one of James's thrillers. All the standard nonsenses of rattling good yarns are here, for J.D.F. Jones has done for John Buchan what assorted ladies have lately been doing for Jane Austen. Except that no one yet put Ms Austen herself into a plot to unravel a polite misunderstanding or guide a courtship to a felicitous conclusion. But Mr Jones, under a lattice of tiresome scholastic apparatus - missing papers just come to hand, Buchan's account (never to be published), of his own adventures in pursuit of the missing Grail of the Boer state, "Kruger's Gold", his encounter with that villainous German major and a hardly less prepossessing Portuguese butler - has done as much. John Buchan, working in South Africa, involved with Milner's Kindergarten, becomes "John Buchan".

Sent in pursuit of the gold by Milner and Joseph Chamberlain, he takes on a conspiracy of Germans, is imprisoned by the Scottish-sounding Chief M'Chudi, escapes by slithering down the scree of an inland cliff, strikes up with Douglas Green, a hearty, decent farmer (from Rhodesia, good chap) and an ambiguous, Afrikaner called Schalk Minaar, based on the other Buchan's Pieter Pienaac, and does all the hair's breadth, unlikely but compelling things which Buchan heroes in such circumstances feel compelled to do.

There will be enormous displeasure from tight-lipped young women with politically correct views, at the way casual racial aspersions are scattered about - Prussian sadists, the "Portu-goose" and (horrors) the "Kaffir" - combined with a warm approbation of decent Rhodesian settlers. The word kaffir, Arabic not Afrikaans, originally meant "infidel" or "non- Moslem". As Buchan himself used the word, it spoke neither modern pieties, nor Afrikaner dismissal. Along with a breathless on-rush of events, imperfect sensibility is part of Buchan.

And Mr Jones, better than lady novelists attempting sequels to Austen while unequal to the subjunctive, has got himself a very decent Buchan style - though a modest writer of 1900 is more easily imitated than a great one of 1810. For what it is worth, he has written a very decent Buchan novel, though in soft cover with 246 pages, it isn't worth pounds 10.

Although it must be said that the breaking of early rains, which miraculously saves Green and Minaar from the bush-fire enveloping their Kopje, does rather push out the narrative boat. And one might wish that Dorando would stay Dorando instead of briefly becoming Domingo. And the joke about having a character called "Colonel Wheatcroft" (Geoffrey W, the well-known journalist wrote about this era in The Randlords) grows irritating. So do heavy-handed footnotes contrasting characters in the cod manuscript and the later Buchan novels. And the death of the Major while fighting a tied-up Green (he dies by running onto an assegai which Green has snatched from the wall) will be a prize entry in any Improbability Olympics.

But the test, as with Buchan himself, is: do we enjoy it? And the answer is yes. Is there anything in it for the carrion of television? Well both characters express a decent 1900-ish discomfort at the very notion of women. But there are torture scenes off-stage to which Andrew Davies could apply his wet-breeches technique. Also the Major makes a homosexual pass - "in an explosion of horror my feet lashed out in a superhuman spasm and I hurled myself away from him". But The Buchan Papers is really a work of reconstructed naivity, made easy even before the TV men get at it.

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