Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Prester John, by John Buchan

I inherited this little book from my mother, but didn't pick it up until the other day, when my interest was immediately tickled by the fact that it's set in South Africa.

It was a most interesting read.  First, it's a great, boys' adventure story, very well written and exciting to read in classic H Rider Haggard fashion, and I tore through it in short order.  (It's pretty short, so that's no great achievement!)  Second, it was first published in 1910 and set only a few years before that, so exhibits the typical imperialistic racism of the day.  The 'kaffirs' are seen as most definitely a lower order, incapable of planning more than a step or two into the future, and would definitely benefit from being colonised and Christianised.  A Portuguese (referred to throughout the book as 'Portugoose') is 'shifty and furtive-looking', with the implication that all Portuguese are thus.

As I encountered all this, I half expected to feel revulsion, but in fact, just dismissed it as typical of its day, and ignored it.  I did wonder whether it would be better to exclude it from a list of children's books, and am still unsure about that.   The choice of words and the sentence structure is sufficiently different from the way we speak today as to emphasise its antiquity, which may be enough for even those without my long perspective on the world to see it as an excellent page-turner to be enjoyed in its own right.  It would be a shame for political correctness to deprive the world of such a great afternoon's read.

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