Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'Absolute Friends' by John Le Carré

I picked this one up firstly because I couldn't decide which way to go in my historical reading and, secondly, because I've always enjoyed Le Carré's writing. By the time I reached the end of the book it occurred to me that this actually is a sort of historical novel. The time period begins in the mid-1960s and continues up to the present (or 2003 when the novel was written). The setting incorporates many historical events and places from those years. No historical persons appear as characters, which some will find disappointing but many others might consider a plus. The most interesting departure, however, from a "normal" historical is the author's invention of a hidden back story underlying the historical events. In this regard, Absolute Friends resembles Stone's Fall by Iain Pears - one of my favorites from 2009.

The climactic series of events in the story leads up to a fictional dénouement wherein the hero realizes how he and his absolute friend have been cleverly deceived and manipulated by the fiendish villains. At that point, the author strikes out into territory not unfamiliar to many historical novelists - the morality tale. Remember, this was written in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion. In that and other events, Le Carré sees the work of a worldwide corporate/political conspiracy with the power to manipulate history to achieve its own nefarious ends. Had he waited a few years to see what an embarrassing botch Iraq became, Le Carré might have lowered his estimate of the omnipotence of those shadowy conspirators. To his credit, he doesn't pick sides like Tom Clancy or other flag-wavers. The bad guys are bad guys and the good guys are also bad guys.

Anyway, Absolute Friends was a good read. In future, I will continue to be tempted by post-WWII spy/crime novels, if they do a good job with the history. Are you listening, John Lawton?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman

I suspect that most American readers of historical fiction share my incomplete and skewed knowledge of King Richard I. Before reading Sharon Kay Penman's "Angevin series" novels, I knew Richard mainly as the violent, angry, homosexual sociopath of The Lion in Winter, or as the beloved but absent English king championed by Robin Hood against the evil usurper, Prince John. Penman has done us all a great favor by filling out our picture of Richard as a complex and nuanced character in Devil's Brood, and now in Lionheart. Beyond Richard himself, the novel contributed greatly to my knowledge of the Crusades and the complex politics of those times.

Lionheart begins where Devil's Brood left off, following the death of King Henry in 1189. Richard's first task is to consolidate his rule of his father's empire and put loyal vassals in place to administer the widely-separated regions. The work takes on added urgency when Richard decides to "take the cross" and lead an army against the "Saracen" Moslems who have recaptured Jerusalem from the Christian forces under their charismatic Kurdish general, whose Arabic name is usually rendered as "Saladin". The remainder of Lionheart takes place during the so-called "Third Crusade", as Richard battles not only Saladin but also the schemes of his main "ally", King Philippe II of France. The novel ends as Richard, having failed to recapture Jerusalem and fearing for the survival of his kingdom at home, departs forever from Palestine in late 1192. Penman will complete the story of Richard's eventful homeward journey in the forthcoming A King's Ransom.

Thanks to Penman's conscientious historical research, the reader gains a historically-accurate picture of the Richard and his Crusaders during those turbulent two years. Modernizing distortions of the fictionalized historical characters are kept to an unobtrusive minimum - especially important when all of the main characters are historical. Exotic locations include the Kingdom of Sicily, where Richard's sister Joanna is Queen, and the Crusader kingdom known to the French-speakers as Outremer (which translates generally as "beyond the sea" or "overseas"). An entertaining (and fairly accurate as historical movies go) account of events leading up to Richard's arrival in "The Holy Land" can be found in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Some of the movie characters have roles in Lionheart, including the hero Balian of Ibelin. As for Richard himself, Penman devoted considerable research to debunking the "homosexual" label as a slander circulated by his enemies. The violence and anger, however, of the Richard portrayed in James Goldman's famous play are also present in Penman's version. One interesting creative decision by Penman is to keep Saladin in the background. He appears in the story only through the words of his lieutenants and popular stories told about him.

As with Devil's Brood, Lionheart rates straight 5's in my criteria for historical novels. The genre is lucky to have a writer who is able to entertain while maintaining the utmost respect for history. Highly recommended.