Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia


No, this is not a blog posting about The Princess Bride, probably the most quotable movie ever. (Though I really should reread it someday -- does Vizzini actually say the line in the book? I can't remember. And I didn't realize until after I'd written this post that it's the 30th anniversary of The Princess Bride!!)

Anyway. After a solid month of reading (with some other audiobooks mixed in), I have finally finished the 950-page behemoth that is The Far Pavilions. Written by M. M. Kaye, in 1978, this is an epic story about an Englishman, raised as an Indian, who falls in love with a half-Indian princess against the backdrop of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the late 1800s. (Did you know there was a second Anglo-Indian War? I never knew there was a first, but I'm a Yank and we are not taught such things in school. I barely learned about the British Raj and the East India Company).

So. The book start with the birth of young Ashton Pelham-Martin, born in the Himalayas in the 1850s to English parents -- an eccentric academic father and a young mother who dies in childbirth. His father then dies of cholera during the Indian Rebellion of 1858. Fearing for his safety as a foreigner, little Ash is then raised by his Indian nurse Sita as Hindu boy whom she renames Ashok. (He has dark hair and eyes and can pass for a native). He spends much of his childhood knowing nothing of his family history and ends up as a servant in the local prince's household, until palace intrigues force his adoptive mother to reveal his true parentage and return him to his ancestral home in England.


Because of his upbringing, Ashton's loyalties are forever divided between his Englishness and his love for India, and eventually he joins the military and returns to India, where his knowledge of Indian language and culture make him both invaluable and suspect to the British Raj. There is romance, there are intrigues, there are battles and action scenes galore. Also, lots and lots of war strategy and politics which I wasn't expecting. It's a very dense read so I definitely couldn't zip through it. (But I did learn that the Soviets invading Afghanistan in the 1980s wasn't a new idea).

Overall, I really enjoyed the book but darn it all, my edition was 955 pages with tiny print and very narrow margins, and honestly, I think M. M. Kaye could have used some more editing. Naturally, there are amazing coincidences and lots of exposition where characters are explaining political and military history and I do feel like there was a lot more telling of events than showing. Plus, the book is so huge, I really feel like it could have been split into three stories: Ash's childhood, the love story with the Indian princess, Anjuli; and the Afghan war story.

Also, I found Anjuli's character to be incredibly undeveloped and there are chapters upon chapters when she's barely mentioned, which I found irritating. She's hardly in the final third of the book at all. One of the blurbs on the back cover describes it as "a high-adventure love-story" but if you're looking for a sweeping romance, this isn't it. I was expecting Gone With the Wind in the Himalayas, but there's far more war and politics than character development in this book, which I found disappointing. Also: NO MAPS, which is a pet peeve when characters are traveling in books, and there is a lot of traveling in this one. I am unfamiliar with Indian and Afghani geography, so I found this especially irritating. (However, they do include a diagram of a military compound).

However, I did like that Ashton really was supporting the Indian and then the Afghani viewpoint, rather than blindly following the British Colonial idea that White People Know Best. I'm debating now as to whether I should watch the 1980s TV adaptation, which turned a book of nearly a thousand pages into a six-episode mini-series starring lots of white people, including Amy Irving as a half-Indian princess. Seriously.

That's Ben Cross as the adult Ashton, and Amy Irving in brownface as Anjuli. Really.
I'm still planning on reading The Raj Quartet (also turned into a mini-series), which is thankfully divided into four different books since it totals nearly 1800 pages. And A Suitable Boy, because it would be nice to read an epic book set in India actually written by someone Indian. It won't be for a while because I'm not quite sure if I can dive right in to another epic doorstopper.

13 comments:

  1. Really good review of The Far Pavillions. I love your blog.

    The size of the Far Pavillions and the fact that it might need more editing makes me think another novel about India might suit me better. I've heard good things about Jewel of Crown which I believe is book one in Raj Quartet. I believe Heat and Dust is written by a talented author, born in India. Would need to know the plot though to see if its for me.

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    1. I did enjoy it but it's a bit unwieldy -- it's massive. I also have Jewel in the Crown (I received both of them for Christmas last year and really want to make progress on that stack before next Christmas!). I'll probably take a break between books about India but I think it will be interesting to compare the middle of the Raj with the end.

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  2. Just checked and author of Heat and Dust who won Booker prize for this novel was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Not born in India but lived there 24 years.

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    1. I forgot about Heat and Dust! I watched the film years ago but I barely remember it, must add it to my list as well. I had no idea RPJ was German! I just read the Wikipedia bio, her life sounds fascinating.

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  3. A Suitable Boy is a fabulous novel, so you should definitely read it as soon as you feel up to the doorstopper. I loved it so much!

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  4. I love The Far Pavilions but I do agree that it's too long - the Afghan war part at the end feels separate from the rest and could have been a different book. I'm glad you enjoyed it overall, though!

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  5. Much of my understanding of world history has been gleaned by me via fiction! This does seem like a doorstopper of a book, but sometimes I find those kinds of books very satisfying, I just have to read them at the right time.

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  6. I enjoyed The Jewel in the Crown, and the 1984 TV series of it. The British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said that his first rule of politics was - Never invade Afghanistan.

    I believe we (Britain) invaded it twice in Victorian times, we should have learned from that. It's an impossible task.

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  7. I'm thinking this one isn't for me but I'm going to direct Jason to your review because he has this book on the shelf!

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  8. I love the Princess Bride. Realize that's not really what your post was about, but had to read it as soon as I saw that quote!

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  9. Excellent review--interesting premise. I have sound that the older mini-series really don't hold up that well--we've gotten very spoiled by modern production standards.

    I actually couldn't read a book with the parameters you've described. I don't like large print books, but the type can't be so small that I get eyestrain either.

    I've read the first book in the Raj Quartet and thought it really good. I am trying to learn more about India myself, and novels seem a pretty good springboard.

    On to Princess Bride, the barista at my coffeeshop was wearing a Dread Pirate Roberts tee-shirt yesterday, so we traded our favorite quotes from the movie. Fun times!

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  10. I loved The Far Pavilions, M M Kaye was brought up in India and knows the country well. I think the TV adaptation was in some ways better than the book because they had the Anjuli section at the end which actually made better sense as a story. The Raj Quartet is a wonderful series and filmed in areas of the Punjab that you can't visit today. You'll never look at Charles Dance in the same way again! A Suitable Boy is an excellant read, very easy to get into and great fun.

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  11. Tiny print and 995 pages? You deserve a medal! This book has been on my radar for a long time but still haven't got around to it.

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