Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 5

For someone who did everything he possibly could to avoid being posted to India, Flashman's opening comment in Chapter 5 is rather curious: There may be better countries for a soldier to serve in than India, but I haven't seen them.. Despite his impressions of the country back in England, Flashman is an adaptable chap, and once he finds out how things work for a moneyed British officer in India he soon makes himself very comfortable. He rents a house and procures some servants, including a nubile teenage bed warmer by the name of Fetnab. Judging by her description the lass on the cover may be a depiction of Fetnab. She serves a double purpose for Harry. She keeps him busy in bed, teaching him the ninety seven ways of making love (a Kama Sutra reference), although Flashman considers it all nonsense as the seventy fourth position is the same as the seventy third, but with your fingers crossed, this is one of those laugh out loud moments that George MacDonald Fraser regularly inserted into the narrative when you least expected it. The other thing that Fetnab taught her employer/owner was Hindustani. Flashman has an ear for languages, but never picked up Greek or Latin at school because he had no interest in them. He muses that the best way to learn a language is to spend a time in bed with a native girl, he would have gotten more of the classics from an hour's wrestling with a Greek girl than he did in four years with Arnold.

As well as the language, Flashman practises the local custom of lancing from a horse. He is tilting at pegs (and pariah dogs) one morning with his rissalder; a Pathan called Muhammed Iqbal, when he is summoned by an observing British general by the name of Crawford. Two things about the young British officer impress the general. One is his ability on the back of a horse, the other is his facility with Hindustani. Crawford has been in India for nearly 30 years and hasn't been able to pick up more than a handful of sentences, to his ear Flashman has been in the country for 3 weeks and speaks the language like a local. He invites Flashman to his residence that evening.

One thing led to another (although Crawford obviously had this planned from the moment he met Harry Flashman) and the two soldiers are attending a dinner with the Governor-General Lord Auckland and his sister Lady Emily Eden. The Governor-General and his sister take a great interest in this charming young officer and inquire as to where he will be stationed. Not having any great enthusiasm for Company service (the British East India Company effectively ran the country and were the ones who decided where the soldiers were stationed) Flashman indicates this to Lady Emily. Crawford agrees, as does Lord Auckland and they begin to talk about a posting where Flashman's talents can be put to best use. Flashman believes he's landed on his feet, and dreams of a relatively easy position as a galloper for General Elphinstone.

Then the news of where General Elphinstone and his staff are being posted is delivered; Afghanistan. In the 19th century Afghanistan was one of the most far flung areas of the British Empire. Flashman describes the country as being 'the hottest, hardest, most dangerous place in the world.' The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? I'd bet a few American Marines have applied the same description to Afghanistan in the 21st century as Flashman did in the 19th. Flashman knows that refusing what they see as a generous offer from a general, the sister of a Governor-General and the Governor-General himself is a career limiting move, so with a sinking heart, he accepts. He later takes out his rage and fear on Fetnab, this makes it rather hard to feel much sympathy for him.

Flashman's description of the political situation in Afghanistan, like his description of the country itself, has an eerie parallel today. Afghanistan lay between Russia and the areas it controlled in Turkestan, and the British Empire's Jewel in the Crown in India. The British had invaded the country, removed Dost Mohammed, who they suspected of having Russian sympathies, and replaced him with the less popular, but more amenable Shah Sujah on the throne. The whole thing was a tinderbox just waiting to go kaboom and Flashy said it was just his luck that he was going to end up on top of the resulting conflagration.

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