Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What's Old is New

by Scott Adlerberg

History is cyclical, is one way of looking at things.  Another is to use a familiar phrase like, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

With these thoughts in mind, and considering the current state of affairs involving what's called the Western world and the Islamic world, it's interesting to look at a short suspense novel that dramatizes the conflict in an entertaining but serious way. The book's author is none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, and the book is The Tragedy of the Korosko.  Serialized in Strand Magazine from May through December of 1897, the narrative was published as a novel in 1898.



The plot involves a group of Western tourists taking a Nile holiday cruise in North Africa.  This is the time when the British, of course, are the region's colonial power.  The nationalities represented by the tourists are English, Irish, French, and American.  Their trip starts from the village of Shellal, just south of Aswan, Egypt, and it is bound for Wadi Hafa in the Sudan.  The third person narration describes the travelers as a "merry party, for most of them had traveled up together from Cairo to Aswan, and even Anglo-Saxon ice thaws rapidly upon the Nile".  As colonials abroad, Westerners traveling with their late nineteenth century sense of entitlement, who see large patches of the world as their playpen, why shouldn't they be merry?  Except that their trip gets rudely interrupted when a group of Dervish fighters on camels take them all hostage in the desert.  The Dervishes are Islamists, absolute religious zealots, and their leader tells the hostages they must convert to Islam. If they don't, they may be killed. Alternatively, they may be sold into slavery when the troop gets to Khartoum.  In any event the hostages are in deep trouble, and what follows, in Victorian-era style, is an exciting yarn of pursuit and tension as the British army takes up the chase in the desert and tries to rescue the hostages before the kidnappers get them to Khartoum.


There's no question this book is of its time.  Conan Doyle has no qualms about standing up for British imperialism, and for the most part, the Westerners are the victims in the story, the Islamists the villains.  And Doyle can't but help throw a few barbs the Frenchman's way, creating a character who criticizes the British for their expansionist policies.  But it's remarkable how much the overall thrust of the book mirrors the contemporary world.  Doyle wrote the book when many Europeans clearly felt a fear and distrust of Islam, and though the narrative moves fast, Doyle touches on topics as relevant now as they were then: East versus West, Judeo-Christian civilization versus Islamic, the Middle East as danger zone, hostage-taking, religious fanaticism, terror.  There's even a section spoken by a British character that reads, "It's my opinion that we have been the police of the world long enough...We policed the seas for pirates and slavers.  Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilization. There is never a mad priest or a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants to know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jihad in the Sudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right.  And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals.  We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it?"  Cut out "Great Britain," paste in a certain other country, and does any of this language sound familiar?

The Tragedy of the Korosko has brisk prose and impeccable craftsmanship.  You'd expect nothing less from Conan Doyle, a writer who didn't know how to write a boring line.  You can read the book in one or two sittings, and it's well worth a look both as a snapshot of its time and as an early consideration of a conflict that hasn't changed all that much in over a century.  Question though: when you read a novel like this that seems at once ripped from the headlines of its long ago era and, in its essence, not far removed from today's headlines, do you get depressed at the lack of so-called progress?  I don't know. Some people might. Depends on the person.  But I find that whenever I'm silly enough to think that there's something particularly special or horrific about this age, a good historical story sets me right. It reminds me of the obvious - that, technology aside, nothing much concerning people has changed greatly since...whenever.  Not to minimize horrible actions and events, but I find that a little historical perspective always helps me tune out the shouting, hysteria, and overstatement that fill the air these days.





2 comments:

Rick Ollerman said...

It hadn't occurred to me, at least not yet, that the situation with the Mahdi and General Gordon (and later Kitchener and a young Churchill) in the Sudan and the ISIL caliphate are similar in so many ways. I wasn't familiar with this Conan Doyle story but I ordered it this morning, so thanks for pointing it out....

Scott Adlerberg said...

Sure. The book's a really intriguing read considering everything going on. And it's so true - a lot of similarities between the Isis mentality and the Mahdi's movement of that time. Now though, given the difference in weapons at everyone's disposal...