Virago, £14.99, 341pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
An Honourable Man, By Gillian Slovo
Friday 27 January 2012
Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians announced that Gordon of Khartoum was not that eminent after all. Nearly a century later, Gillian Slovo's novel confirms the General's membership of the Great British Walking Disaster Brigade. As with her co-authored play Guantánamo and Ice Road, her novel about the siege of Leningrad, An Honourable Man is a fiction populated by real people caught up in historical events. Again we are in a siege, this time of Khartoum in the Sudan, threatened by the Dervish followers of the Mahdi, a mad, mystical leader.
Gordon was supposed to be organising an evacuation but instead was defending the fortress and prepared to shed the blood of the last white man (himself; there were no others) plus that of the starving local soldiers. Another real personage is WT Stead, the excitable journalist who was to go down with Titanic and who led an ill-advised campaign for the British government to risk sending a relief force to the beleaguered general.
This powerful story begins with the departure from Waterloo of a civilian doctor accompanying the ill-fated expeditionary force. He bids farewell to his fragile wife, who is rather more daunted by the prospect of being left alone in London than he is by that of facing enemy spears in the desert.
We see much of the action through his eyes as he attempts to patch up wounded and dying soldiers. Out-ranking the "other ranks", yet still a civilian, the doctor tries to do the honourable thing but finds his good intentions leading to the death of a close colleague.
Set against his perils are those of his wife, who faces danger from the laudanum in his surgery and her attempts to obtain fresh supplies in the London underworld. Gordon himself is in the greatest peril from a situation of his own making, magnificently portrayed as he strides around his rickety fortifications and contemplates the flood-plain of the White Nile across which he knows the dervishes will come whirling when the water level drops.
Lytton Strachey made much of Gordon's eccentricities; late in life the General spent a gap year looking for the site of the Garden of Eden and the actual spot where Noah's Ark hit dry land. Slovo is equally realistic but less mocking. We see the deluded General largely through the eyes of his one trusted companion, a boy whom he has rescued from the London slums. The lad finds himself in the desperate position of being the main link between the grown-up and reality.
Slovo is highly sympathetic to the poor bloody infantry (if that is the expression for soldiers mounted precariously on camels) who obediently risk and give their lives for a hopeless campaign.
She is harder on the officer class. She drops in quotes from Sir Henry Newbolt's tub-thumping poem urging public-school chaps to "play up! and play the game!" - highly ironic, when the military game is not worth the candle.
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