It was late in the day and I had not yet decided the book I was going to read for The Classic Club Readathon 2014. I had specifically declined all social engagement and had cooked enough food to last the entire weekend on Friday, so I could devote January 4th for the Readathon. I had piled up enough coffee/tea/wine and nuts to see me through the day and I was all set – except for the book. I just could not decide on what book to read! I wavered between re-reading Daphne Du Maurer‘s “Rebecca” which I had not re-read in a long time. I also mulled over reading Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone” or I could try something new like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Other Side of Paradise”. While I wavered and thought and re-read the synopsis of all the books and discarded one in favor of the other, only to return to the original again, Fate or God or could be both, I think disgusted with my indecision, decided to take matter in their own hand and raged such a storm that all wires went down and the valley where I stay was plunged in darkness. Inquires reveled that we would be stuck in this powerless/internet less world for next couple of hours to come! Oh! Joy!
Considering the situations, Du Maurer, Chopin and Fitzgerald were out as they were all in my Kindle and the battery was low and would not last me through the night. I could go for Dicken’s but the print was too small for reading in candle light and I have enough Myopia to last me a lifetime without tempting it more. So it was Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone”. As I hovered at my bookshelf to draw out the Volume in a la Lady with a Lamp style, I noticed a slim volume, right next to “The Moonstone”. I drew it out and realized it was H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solmon’s Mines”. Now shocking as this may sound, I had not read this book. I had read “She” by Ridder Haggard and I had read “The Lost World” by Author Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” but I somehow had missed reading the very first of the lost settlement writing. The original Africa adventure tale! So without further debate, I settled down to read this much neglected and overlooked book, discarding all the original thought through options! Ah! Such is life – man proposes and God/Fate disposes!
Anyway, enough philosophy, here goes the tale of reading the tale –
Allan Quatermain, a nearing 60 Elephant hunter is the narrator of the tale and he describes of an adventure that began about 18 months ago when aboard a ship that was sailing to Durban, he met Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. They are in a quest to find Sir Curtis’s brother, who was last seen by Allan Quatermain couple of months ago, heading for the mysterious mountains across the desert in search of the fabled Solmon’s diamond mine. It was said that no man survived the journey and no one returned alive from the mountain. Sir Curtis and Captain Good solicit Allan Quatermain’s expertise in the journey; along the way a Zulu named Umbopa who though acts as a servant and general man Friday joins their journey. It is clear that Umbopa has some mysterious questof his own that he seeks to fulfill through this journey. Travelling through the desert and after various adventures and desperate condition, they reach the Kukanaland; through some glib talking and the magic of modern science including the set of false teeth and use of a gun, the three white men convince the Kukanaland people of being godly creatures from “the stars”. Kukuanaland though extremely organized and well maintained is ruled by the cruel King Twala with the help of the witch Gogool. Twala gained the throne after murdering his brother and running out his brother’s widow and young son out of Kukuanaland into desert where they both are presumed death. After many blood shedding ceremonies which were apparently in honor of the “white men from the stars”, Umbopa reveals his identity and order is restored in Kukuanaland by killing of Tawala. The original three then continue their quest for the mines and the consequences there off forms the climax of the story.
Needless to say this is one thrilling adventure tale, more so when read through a stormy dark night, especially when cut of s from modern civilized amenity like electricity and internet. However, taking away the ‘atmospheric’ element of the story, there is no getting away from the fact that this is wonderful yarn. I am not generally in favor of hunting Treasure Islandy tales, but this book is so much more than that. To say the King Solmon’s Mines is an adventure tale, is over simplification of the worst kind.
Though written in simple direct everyday language (it is the everyday language of 1880s), the tale grips the reader by the collar and does not let go, with its turbulent highs and lows. There is enough humor to break the tension and it is woven through the tale in such finesse that its breaks the tension just when the reader is about to bite off his fingers (by now you have chewed through your nails!) with some laugh out loud moments. It also raises some very interesting questions that have more than a shade of political and social commentary in it. For instances, right at the beginning Allan Quatermain describing himself, asks “What is a gentleman?” and then debates through this question in some way or form through the tale. Then when talking about African, he writes the word “nigger” and then scratches it out saying that he will never use such a term to describe African race. There is also the question of equality when Allan Quatermain upbraids Umbopa for use of imprudent speech when talking to Sir Curtis and Umbopa replies that how does Allan Quatermain know that Umbopa is not of equal rank as Sir Curtis in his own land and may be enen a superior? Though there is stereotypical barbarism of the Africa in the blood rites and cruelty displayed by Tawala and Googol, it far limited and written from the 19th century perspective hardly any commentary is passed on the superiority of the Europeans over Africans. In fact, there is much to admire that comes through Ridder’s description of the level of organization of Kukanaland Army or the noble conduct of many of its inhabitants. He even includes an inter-racial romance between Foulata a girl from Kukuanaland and Captain Good; but is candid enough to question how it will survive in a conservative 19th century England society, though he is full of admiration for Foulata. There is enough questions raised on the relationship between Europeans and Africans at economic, political and social levels and goes beyond the pale of the standard cliche of superior white race showing civilization to backward communities.
As a predecessor to many such tales and adventure stories, I cannot help but say, it rightly stands out the original masterpiece. I am just very sorry to have read this so late in my life!