Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Elitist Ideology of the Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel is considered through some sort of common consensus to be a literary classic and a swashbuckling adventure story to rival those of Alexandre Dumas. Yet it’s difficult to understand why. I found it quite disappointing as a work of literary fiction: the plot is thoroughly non-exciting and includes no actual intrigue or mystery, the writing style seems nonexistent (has Orczy heard of “show, not tell”?), and besides, doesn’t swashbuckling mean you need to have at least one sword-fight? The book’s most grievous flaw, however, is its simple-minded, elitist ideology.

This novel is, of course, about Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel – a heroic Englishmen who rescues aristocrats during the French Revolution. The novel’s author, Baroness Orczy, clearly related to the plight of these aristocrats: her family was forced to leave their native Hungary due to the threat of revolution. They moved to England, where she earned her living as a writer and painter and probably rather missed her luxurious chateau. However, even without such personal ties, Orczy’s attitude is understandable and even human. The French Revolution instituted a sort of inequality that was no better than the pre-revolutionary society it destroyed. French society was sharply divided into classes (aristocrats and commoners) both before and during the Revolution; before, the French nobility naturally had more rights (and food to eat) than the lower classes, while during the Terror, an aristocratic birth in itself was a condemnation to death. Numerous documents and memoirs from the period detail this bloody time, when whole families, including children, were guillotined.

However, what Orczy misunderstands is that, as awful as the society instituted by the revolutionaries was, returning to the Old Regime is not a solution. The Scarlet Pimpernel, seemingly in the spirit of humanity, saves aristocrats from being murdered. But he saves only the aristocrats, and he does so in the name of preserving the status quo from which he, also an aristocrat, emerged. However, the Terror was a dangerous, bloody time when not only those of aristocratic birth, but anyone suspected of resisting the revolutionary government could be guillotined. The streets ran with blood, and it was not just the blood of the nobility. Additionally, Ocrzy does not deal with the fact that these aristocrats do not believe in fundamental human equality. None of them are actually presented as likable, humane characters, and thus Percy’s heroism in saving them is lost on the reader. In fact, once they have been saved by him and immigrated, they continue their aristocrat existences in whatever nation they have fled to and complain about how those French commoners dared to leave their place and rise up. Historically, I do not doubt that French emigrĂ©s held such an attitude of superiority, but Orczy’s novel is a work of fiction. She is writing an adventure story romanticizing a particular historical period; the interest of such a creation lies in the author’s ability to romanticize the period in a way that appeals to the readers and makes the characters’ actions seem heroic in that context. This does not happen.

One episode of the novel in particular highlights this problem. Before the beginning of the book, Marguerite (Percy’s wife) had accidentally dropped a few words about the family of the aristocrat Saint Cyr’s correspondence with foreign ministers against the revolutionary government; as a result, he was guillotined. She did this as revenge for her brother Armand, who fell in love with Saint Cyr’s daughter and was cruelly beaten by his lackeys for daring to love an aristocrat’s daughter. In Orczy’s (and Percy’s) view, this is a terrible thing, and indeed, the death of an entire family is a terrible punishment for the act in question. However. Saint Cyr was corresponding with foreign governments to restore the questionable old regime. In addition, this man and his family believed that human beings are fundamentally unequal; that a commoner has no right to love an aristocrat because, by birth, an aristocrat is ‘better’ than a commoner. Percy disdains Marguerite for bringing this family to the guillotine; there is not a word of disdain for Saint Cyr for his unfair and inhumane conduct towards Armand. This issue is quite literally not dealt with in a single line of the novel.

Of course, it’s important to read this book, as any other, in context. Many great classic novels are, in a way, “elitist,” as they concentrate on their aristocratic protagonists as the only characters capable of feeling, or whose feelings are of interest to the reader. In the middle ages, tales of courtly love depicted the emotional troubles of their noble-born protagonists. Since the development of the novel, sentimental novels have deal with the difficulties of its noble-born protagonists in finding love and happiness because their birth allows them the leisure to worry about such things. However, in Ocrzy’s novel, this attitude is taken to an extreme. Her “good” characters are good because they work towards the conservation of the status quo, whereas the antagonists are “bad” because they wish to reverse it. The noble-born Scarlet Pimpernel, according to the narrator, has no flaws, whereas Chauvelin, his French enemy, is unequivocally evil simply because he is a revolutionary. He has only one side: he is only there to be the enemy. The story is told in clear-cut black and white.

Yet the French Revolution, historically and literarily, is so intriguing precisely because of the blur of that line between black and white, of the aspiration towards equality and humanity that went so terribly wrong. Orczy takes this fascinating historical topic and makes it into an utterly simplistic story. In the end, the only similarity between this novel and anything Dumas has written is the topic of the French Revolution. Dumas, too, wrote a novel that takes place during the Terror. This book, titled The Knight of Maison-Rouge, tells of the love of a revolutionary and an aristocrat. It is a poignant story whose author, unless Baroness Orczy, understands the effect of the Revolution and the Terror not only on the aristocrats, but also on those who most deeply believed in its ideas of liberty and equality and had to face the conflict between their ideals and the manifestation of those ideals.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Lies of Locke Lamora

Before the bookstore chain Borders so lamentably closed, I used to visit in the original Borders store in my hometown of Ann Arbor to browse the science fiction and fantasy shelves, looking for something new and exciting. But (and this, in my opinion, is part of the reason for the downfall of Borders), it seemed like the bookshelves were always full of the same formulas, over and over again: yet another sword-and-sorcery story in which an unlikely hero must save whatever version of Middle-Earth he lives in, yet another vampire romance tale, often with scantily clad women on the cover…Sometimes, though, among that plethora of similar titles, it was possible to find something new and unique. The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those breaths of fresh air. It’s the first volume in Scott Lynch’s planned series of seven (though at this point the release date of the third book is one of the biggest enigmas yet to be solved by science fiction and fantasy fans), and it’s a stunning debut.

The story takes place in Camorr, a magical metropolis that seems to be loosely based upon the European Middle Ages. It follows the fortunes of Locke Lamora in his journey from a simple child sneak-thief to head of the Gentleman Bastards, a group of con-artists. Locke seems to have an uncanny knack for plotting and stealing; both are talents which Chains, a priest of Camorr’s Thirteenth God, a patron deity of thieves, notes. He raises and trains Locke, who maintains the pretense of being a perfectly ordinary sneak thief while pulling off complex heists along with his loyal friends and fellow thieves – Jean, Bug, and the twins Calo and Galdo Sanza. What’s particularly fascinating about Locke’s character – and the entire setup – is the way in which Locke becomes a thief with principles, so to speak. He’s not exactly a Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but he does have greater values than gold. Decency, friendship, and loyalty weigh more on his scales than the riches he steals. It is always inspiring to read of heroism, and those qualities do, indeed, make the characters in some way heroic. Thus, what drives the novel is not just the breathtaking heists the Gentleman Bastards pull off, but the dynamic among the characters through their machinations, joys and troubles. And those troubles are not lacking once someone named the Gray King shows up to make things sticky for Locke and the Gentleman Bastards.

It’s certainly true that the Gentlemen Bastards don’t always deal with this particular enemy in the most clever – or even rational – way, which seems like rather a lapse on Lynch’s part. For example, when blackmailed by the Gray King to help him carry out his plot without quite knowing what it is, they opt to go along with it without trying to find out what it is they’re getting involved in. And when Locke confronts the Gray King, well, he unimpressively attempts to fight him instead of coming up with a clever plan, as the reader would expect. In fact, the climax of the story is a bit of a letdown after all of the buildup and intricate plotting by Lynch and his characters. In addition, there are several places where many paragraphs of description make the story lag. Nevertheless, the entire novel is driven by Lynch’s inventiveness. He dreams up brilliant heists within heists, an infernal garden with blood-sucking glass roses that then take on a brilliantly red color and in which Jean Tannen must learn to fight and not lose his life to his opponent, or the flowers, and a whole society of thieves, priests, dukes, counts, guards, and every other imaginable member of society. His world is as delicately crafted as a sugar castle, and just as charming (albeit darkly so).

However, sometimes it’s Lynch’s inventiveness that gets the better of him. It’s not easy to create a world, and, inevitably, contradictions and inconsistencies arise. For example, the religion in Camorr seems to be based upon a belief in thirteen gods, by which the characters often swear, and which Lynch often describes. And yet, Locke often expresses himself with phrases such as the following: “why the hell should I bother telling you anything?”(635) Hell is part of the Christian religion, and in any case, Lynch, in all his detailed descriptions of thirteen deities, has omitted mention of the afterlife. So how is it that a facet of the Christian religion suddenly exists in a world where this faith is unheard-of? This is, of course, a minor detail, but in a novel in which the author goes to so much effort to create an intricate world, something like this stands out.

Then, there’s also Locke’s methods, that is, what would be called con-artistry in our world, and which seems not to exist in Locke’s. Camorr has a vast underworld of thieves and lawbreakers, so vast, in fact, that within the larger social structure of Camorr, the thieves and criminals have their own society, ruled over by the Capa of Camorr. There’s even a Secret Peace between criminals and nobles, which allows both to do as they please as long as the other is not targeted. Clearly, law-breaking has become a way of life for a large portion of the population, and this population has created their own community. Given such circumstances, it seems rather incredible that nobody’s thought of con-artistry yet. In fact, one of the characters, Ibelius, tells Locke “I’ve never conceived of such a thing as this false-facing of yours.”(613). Con-artistry seems so unheard-of in Camorr that it doesn’t even have a name. Much of the plot of the book is dependent on the premise of this originality, and it could do with a bit more justification.

There’s also the interesting question of Lynch’s style, which has been much debated. Though his descriptions do lag a bit, his prose is nevertheless engaging, full as it intrigue and humor, of which I can’t help providing an example here:

“There are only three people in life you can never fool--pawnbrokers, whores, and your mother. Since your mother's dead, I've taken her place. Hence, I'm bullshit-proof.”

Nevertheless, his book is sprinkled with more swearwords than there are spices in an exotic dish. In fact, statistically, Lynch probably uses the f-word on average once per page. The issue here is not even the word itself, which exists in the English language to be used, just like any other word, in certain situations, to make a certain impression and evoke a certain response. Just like any other word, it can be used to develop a character’s personality or hint at their origin. Yet in this book, this word is used by everyone of every social class, in every situation, all the time. Therefore, it adds no emphasis to anything; it cannot be used to differentiate between a character’s different moods and reactions, or between the origins of different characters. It serves no purpose whatsoever. Try repeating the word “fuck” several hundred times and you’ll see that it becomes simply a syllable.

Despite these discrepancies, however, this is still a marvelously entertaining story. Its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies (of which I hope to post a review soon), is even more captivating, and one hopes that the promised release date of June 2012 for The Republic of Thieves (book 3) is actually accurate.