In this first installment of the Flashman Papers, Harry Paget Flashman is expelled from Rugby for drunkenness, is forced into marriage with a woman above him in wealth but below him in station because her family catches him in flagrante, fixes a duel, finds himself (much against his will) shipped off to India and then to Afghanistan, and manages to escape from some of colonial Britain’s deadliest battles by the skin of his cowardly teeth. He’s a cad, a rotter, a coward, a womanizer, a drunkard, a cheater,a thief, a traitor. And he gallops through the pages of this book with disarming and total sincerity, falling from frying pans into fires, and coming out only moderately scorched — and usually, since he’s often the only person left alive, a decorated hero.
I had incredibly mixed feelings about this book while I was reading it. I’ve literally heard about it all my life — my father owned it, and I can very clearly recall looking at this same cover (bearing a British soldier with a scantily-clad Indian woman sitting at his feet) when I was small. Other people whose taste I trust think it’s a classic, not to be missed, huge satiric fun. Even Michael Dirda, for heaven’s sake, the contemporary book critic I trust most, wrote the introduction to the recent Everyman’s Library edition of the first three Flashman novels. And yet…
I had a lot of objections right from the start. I mean, okay, it was written in 1962 (prime James Bond time, by the way), and it was immaculately researched, and it was supposed to be iconoclastic, supposed to be a slap in the face to bowdlerized history. In other words, I was not expecting politically correct language or events. But the more I read, the more I cringed. Every single woman is a tart, a trollop, a whore, a bint — even the woman Flashman clearly loves. Every Afghan and Indian native is a blackamoor, a savage, or worse. Even though Flashman gives himself and his fellow officers equal time — he and they are fools, dunces, imbeciles, layabouts — I still didn’t like it much.
And then I kept asking myself, Is this supposed to be funny? What about this? There are certain set pieces that are genuinely funny, that made me laugh, like the fixed duel. But other parts, like the (true) story of the (entirely preventable) massacre of the English at Khoord-Kabul, were not funny at all. It was a story of terrible mismanagement and pride and stupidity, and the horrifying, heartbreaking consequences, and I kept wondering, is this satire? Is it funny? And then old Flashy would stumble into another trap and I’d laugh again in spite of myself. (Even the women get their revenge, in a way.)
I am not sure I have truly come to any conclusion. My best guess is this: that George MacDonald Fraser was a man who hated war, who saw history and its blunders and who saw a way, through humor, to make some of the truth known. What is war like for people who want nothing more than to run away and save themselves? People who aren’t heroes, no matter how many medals we pin on them? What is it like to be short of food and water, to be responsible for thousands of civilians, to have selfish, weak, stupid leaders? Flashman can help us see, and along the way he can make us laugh our fool heads off. I’m not sure, but I think this might be a much better book than I began believing it was.