Showing posts with label historical novel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical novel. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book review: Brothers at War (Empire of the Moghul, Book II)

(Published in the Business Standard, March 2010. I met and liked Michael and Diana Preston, co-authors of the Empire of the Moghul series, but as is apparent, I wasn't sold on the second volume. The Prestons have been travelling to India for over 30 years, and know their Mughals--but Humayun didn't come to life for me. Not that this is going to dent their impressive Indian sales, and both of them seem so enthusiastic about the Jahangir book, where Mehr-un-Nissa takes over the story, and the Akbar book, that I'm willing to stay with the series a while longer.
Loved Michael's story about travelling to Iran just after the Rushdie fatwa with a copy of the Baburnama. Just before he reached, he realised it had a foreword by Salman Rushdie, so he ripped out those pages; then searched the book frantically for more Rushdie mentions, and finally made Teheran airport with a bowdlerised Baburnama, title pages, foreword, back cover missing. After all that effort, Iran Customs showed no interest in the book.)

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War

Alex Rutherford,

Hachette, Rs 495, 436 pages

Edo Steinberg is an unsung, unpublished genius whose claim to fame rests on this contribution to the annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest:

“Our tale takes place one century before the reign of Alboin, the Lombard king who would one day conquer most of Italy and who would end up being murdered by his own wife (quite rightfully, I'd say, since Alboin made a drinking cup out of her daddy's skull and forced her to drink from it), when our little Sonnebert was seven years old.”

Steinberg was one of the 2008 winners in the Historical Fiction category, and this entry sums up the pitfalls of trying to write in the epic vein. It’s tempting to adopt a sonorous style to fit the period, to introduce too much information too fast, and to try to sneak in a winsome minor character, usually of dubious value.

Contrast this with the quiet opening paragraph of Brothers at War, by Alex Rutherford: “The wind was chill. If Humayun closed his eyes he could almost imagine himself back among the pastures and mountains of the Kabul of his boyhood, rather than here on the battlements of Agra. But the short winter was ending. In a few weeks the plains of Hindustan would burn with heat and dust.”

In just two books, part of the grandly ambitious Empire of the Moghul series, the husband-and-wife team that make up the pseudonymous “Alex Rutherford” have made their mark on historical fiction in India. Diana and Michael Preston are both civil servants and enthusiastic travelers, and what drives Empire of the Moghul is their passion for the bloody lives and times of the emperors, from Babur to Aurangzeb. The first book, Raiders from the North, drew heavily from Babur’s writings to create a portrait of a young, ambitious king, exiled several times over in his fierce quest for a kingdom of his own; Brothers at War takes us into the far more internal struggles of Humayun.

In their account, Humayun emerges as a man of the senses, beguiled and betrayed by his appetites, embracing opium as passionately as he embraces the women of his harem. His virtues are also his weaknesses: the compassion and forgiveness he shows his warring brothers as they plot against him will drive him into exile for years. As with the first book in the series, it’s the Prestons’ attention to detail and their intimate knowledge of the workings of the Mughal empire that makes this a satisfying, meaty read. They’re great on the battle sequences, and when they offer details such as the astrological carpet Humayun has woven when his opium-fuddled mind wants the court to be governed by the planets, they bring the period alive.

But the really great historical novels, like really great literary novels, make their mark by creating unforgettable characters. Hillary Mantel did this in Wolf Hall by bringing Thomas Cromwell—the weaver’s brat who rose to become the king’s counselor—to life against the bloody, brutal background of Tudor England. George RR Martin, with a cast of fictional characters in an imaginary landscape in the Song of Ice and Fire, pulls off an awesome feat when he makes you believe in a country where the last of the dragons still terrorise the skies and direwolves roam an increasingly bitter winter landscape. He does this by making his protagonists—the young boy-king, Rob, the diabolically shrewd and kind dwarf Tyrion Lannister—as real as though they inhabited the pages of a history textbook.

The Prestons do their best, lacing Humayun’s struggle to reach, and hold, the throne of Hindustan with internal monologues: “An even deeper melancholy took hold of Humayun—not only grief at Maham’s death but a sense that many of the certainties of his youth were crumbling. All his life he’d been a pampered prince, brought up to expect great things as of right, confident of his place in the world. Never before had he felt so insignificant, so vulnerable to the buffeting of others’ actions.”

This tiny section encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the Rutherford/ Preston approach. They manage, successfully, to avoid the kind of bombast and clich├ęs that infest what might be called the school of the hysterical novel. But if these first two books are any indication, Empire of the Moghul will remain a satisfactory, page-turning read, never reaching the heights of the really great historical novels. As with Babur, Humayun in these pages emerges as slightly more interesting than he does from the history textbooks—but they remain flat characters.

One way around this for writers like Philippa Gregory has been to focus the action on minor characters, letting us see emperors and empire through the eyes of a footsoldier, or a skeptical vizier, or a lady of the harem. The trick, with this series, is to treat a historical character the way you would treat an imagined character, to reimagine the emperors of India. For all the virtues of this series, perhaps the Prestons will remain better historians than novelists.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Book review: Wolf Hall

(Published in the Business Standard, October 14, 2009)

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate
POUNDS 7.99, 653 pages

On June 30, 1540, a blacksmith’s son risen to power wrote in desperation to his king, Henry VIII of England: “I crye for mercye, mercye, mercye.” A month later, as Henry hastened to marry Catherine Howard, the fourth of his six wives, Thomas Cromwell, once chief minister and the most powerful man in the land, was executed. In a gruesome touch, Cromwell’s head was boiled and set on a spike in the Tower of London; and an inexpert butcher swung the axe for the blacksmith’s son.

This part of Thomas Cromwell’s tale is not told in Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning, acute, Wolf Hall, set in the turbulent court of Henry VIII. Historical novels don’t need to set down the ending, since we know that part of the story already. Anne Boleyn with her catlike-yawn and beguiling tempestuousness will be beheaded; Henry VIII chose an executioner with a sharp sword, for he loved her so much he wished her to suffer little pain. Jane Seymour will be—briefly—the next Queen of England. And Cromwell, having risen further and faster than most men of his time could dream of, will be killed by his king.

What interests Mantel, one of the most ambitious and technically brilliant novelists of the day, is larger than the story, however fascinating, of long-dead kings, queens and courtiers. Wolf Hall is a study in power, acquisition and lust—always fine themes for those interested in self-improvement—with Cromwell as an alpha among the pack. “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.”

Cromwell’s father may have been an innkeeper or a blacksmith; Mantel chooses blacksmith for the purposes of this novel. Our first glimpse of the young Thomas is of a boy “felled, dazed, silent”, thrashed by Walter Cromwell, a commonplace occurrence in the Cromwell family. From this passage of physical violence, it’s an easy movement to the more sophisticated violence of the court, as young Cromwell climbs higher and higher. Mantel’s character list runs to five pages, and yet we feel we know them all, their entrances and exits are so well-managed.

This is familiar ground for a historical novel, but Mantel raises Wolf Hall well above the level of her competitors. If Anya Seton offered blood, guts and romance in the melodramatic Katherine and Philippa Gregory took a sideways look at the price of ambition in The Other Boleyn Girl, Mantel’s subject is the remorselessness pace of history.

Cardinal Wolsey appears by page 18, a man at the peak of his powers, a successful summitteer on the slopes of ambition, easy in his skin “like a leopard settling into a warm spot”. Less than forty pages later, Wolsey is deposed, his riches scattered, humbled enough to cry as an impassive Cromwell looks on, learning the lessons of power, and the loss of it. Over the next six hundred pages, Anne Boleyn’s ambition and control over the king will flash into vivid life. Mantel exercises supreme control over her material, letting the reader know what lies ahead with brutal clarity rather than appealing to our sense of pathos.

Here is Anne, three hundred pages before she rests her slender neck on the chopping block, contemptuously holding up a piece of paper found in the bed where she makes just enough love to Henry to drive the king insane in his quest for more: “The central figure is the king. .. On either side of him is a woman; the one on the left has no head. ‘That’s the queen,’ she says. ‘Katherine. And that’s me.’ She laughs. ‘Anne sans tete.’”

Mantel is unusual among historical novelists for her understanding of the past—which is to say that she understands that for the Tudors, their times were modern, contemporary. The courts of the Tudors, with their rich tapestries; the oaths of the day; the casual brutality with which a crowd will attend the burning of an old woman, a Loller, and then stove her burned skull and bones in with an iron bar for entertainment; all of these are described with the eyes of a traveller of the period, not from the perspective of a novelist looking back at the past.

Wolf Hall itself, the home of Jane Seymour and her family, is never visited, often evoked, but it is just the right brooding, forbidding presence for this book. In her previous work, Mantel has examined history with a merciless clarity—whether it’s through a memoir like Giving Up The Ghost, or through the story of a turn-of-the-millennium medium with her own posse of ghosts in Beyond Black. Wolf Hall shows the same pitiless curiosity, married to Mantel’s vivid imagination. It’s a great place to start for those who haven’t encountered her work. If man is wolf to man, Mantel’s the silent presence recording everything, loping alongside the pack.
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