Thursday, December 1, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 6

The 6th chapter is both long and controversial for something that happens late in it.

Despite saying that travelling is boring, and that he won't go into the tedious detail of his journey from Calcutta to Kabul, Flashman does a great job of describing the country and what he encounters along the way.

He took Fetnab with him, but 'sold' her off to an artillery major early on, because she wasn't enjoying the trip and was irritating Flashman. He did later regret it, because he was fond of her, but I suspect it's really because he had no one to have sex with.

At Peshawar he encounters one of those characters that is so outlandish they can't possibly be real, but he is. His name is Avitabile and he's an Italian adventurer, who somehow became the governor of a province at the very fringe of the British Empire. He and Flashman actually got along quite well. It was Avitabile who gave Flashman his first insight into the tribes of Afghanistan and warned him against ever trusting the Gilzais. In Avitabile's opinion the only good Gilzai was a dead one.

Flashman encounters the second 'can't possibly be a real person' at Kabul. His name was Sir Willoughby Cotton, and he was who General Elphinstone (usually referred to as Elphy Bey) would take over from. Cotton, upon hearing Flashman's name, says he attended Rugby with a Flashman. This was Buck Flashman. Harry owns to the relationship and Cotton says he was expelled from the school. Never one to miss an opportunity to ingratiate himself with a superior Flashman says that he too was expelled. Cotton asks what for and when Flashman says being drunk, Cotton roars with laughter and says that he was expelled for leading a mutiny. He's not lying. in 1797 Willoughby Cotton was the ringleader of a revolt at Rugby School, where the headmaster's door was blown in with gunpowder!

Flashman winds up with the 'politicals', men like Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes and George Broadfoot. He learns that things are less formal on the frontier and all the officers openly disparage their commander in McNaghten and that they don't have a particularly high opinion of Elphy Bey, either.

Flashman soon finds himself mixing with the locals outside the fort and he picks up Pushtu (the local language), in fact he becomes so good at it that Burnes recommends him for a diplomatic mission to the half-mad Gilzai chief; Sher Afzul. The British need Afzul on side, because he can intercede on their behalf with Akbar Khan (the son of the deposed Dost Mohammed) and his ally Gul Shah, just Gul Shah's name tells you he's bad news. If ever a name had to be invented for a villain (mind you it was his real name), that would be it.

Sher Afzul also takes a liking to Flashman (he definitely has charm when he wants it), and Flashy even makes a friend for life of Afzul's 16 year old son; Ilderim Khan. Afzul makes a 'gift' of a dancing girl called Narreeman to Flashman. The girl is Gul Shah's girlfriend, and it looks like she's become a pawn in a power struggle between Shah and Afzul. Knowing all this Flashman really shouldn't have done what he did. Actually he shouldn't have done what he did at all. This is the infamous rape scene. Flashman himself knows this is a step too far, and he never does it again. There are quite a few people who can't get past this incident and generally don't read on past the first book. It really does drive home what an amoral and pathetic creature Harry Flashman is, and each time I read it I ask myself why I do so often come out on this man's side. In my own defence I will say that Harry does get better after this. He's still a coward, a bully and a cheat, and he does treat women abominably, but he does mellow slightly. I did read an interview with George MacDonald Fraser where he was asked about the rape incident, he stopped short of saying it was a mistake to include it, but he did give the impression that if he'd been able to rewrite the book that scene probably wouldn't have ended up in it. It makes Flashman two enemies: Narreeman and Gul Shah, it's rather hard to know who was the most deadly of the two.

There's an attempt on Afzul's life after this. Flashman, Iqbal and the stalwart Sergeant Hudson are forced to fight for their lives. Flashman's nerve breaks and he winds up getting Iqbal killed. The Pathan curses Flashman with his dying breath. Hudson doesn't witness the incident, but the first people on the scene see carnage, Flashman with a bloody blade and the dead Iqbal and assume that Flashman fought his way out of the attack, but lost his rissaldar in the defence. Flashman so often gets seen as the hero and anyone who knows differently is conveniently killed or discredited. He gets the nickname 'Bloody Lance' out of this one. Afzul even gives Ilderim to Flashman as a hostage for his good behaviour, believing that 'Bloody Lance' will not let any harm come to his son.

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