Monday, October 20, 2008

Manly Pursuits: Boer-ing

Here's another one from the archives, assigned by Sun-Sentinel books editor, Chauncey "Definitely" Mabe.

Just discovered that this book is allegedly going to be turned into a movie called "The Colossus," directed by Sean Mathias and starring Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Ian McKellen and Colin Firth.

Prose is charming, but Boer War story is for the birds

Manly Pursuits. Ann Harries. Bloomsbury Publishing. 352 pages.

One of the biggest literary vanities, the one authors seem to get away with time after time, is the intermingling of fictional characters with real people; not merely the commonplace off-camera appearance of political leaders and cultural icons for texture, context and atmosphere, but actual interaction with past personages.

This is nothing new; Shakespeare's plays, of course, are populated with historical personages, and contemporary writers like erstwhile mystery-man Kinky Friedman routinely populates his potboilers with pals like Willie Nelson and Ratso Sloman.

So when South African author Ann Harries summons the personalities of Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, along with Cecil Rhodes, founder of the nation now known as Zimbabwe, it's hardly remarkable. And in this case, it is even less so.

Harries must have found it irresistible to resurrect these legends, weaving their doings into a story of her own. But other than Rhodes, they're bit players in the strange story of Francis Wills, an Oxford ornithologist who is lured by Rhodes to Africa in order to introduce English songbirds there in an attempt to save the colonist's life. On such silliness is Harries' story built.

Though her prose is charming and authentic-sounding, the preciousness of it all is vexing, as is Harries' conceit of naming her historical pastiche Manly Pursuits, with a lead character who is both effete and effeminate. One wonders if she's being ironic, man-hating or simply prosaic.

Regardless, the narrative ping-pongs between Francis Wills' childhood in mid-19th century England (with cameos by Charles Darwin and other contemporary celebs), and South Africa in 1899, on the eve of Rhodes' war with the Boers, to that point the chief colonizers of southern Africa.

Oscar Wilde comes and goes, much is made of Wills' childhood infirmities, and so on. Culminating in Wills' unhealthy fascination with a young girl, and a bungled effort at averting the inevitable war (which Rhodes interprets as a traitorous act), Harries' story inevitably ends with the disgraced protagonist's return to his homeland.

Unless Manly Pursuits was written in an arcane code, or is a symbolic tale in which the characters are intended as something other than what they appear, or is a bald-faced farce, one is left with the singularly unsatisfying residue of a highly skilled writer having expended her efforts for less than naught.

published June 13, 1999 in the Sun-Sentinel

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