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Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Far Pavilions - an epic novel

First published in 1978, this monumental epic sold ¼-million in hardback alone; paperback sales, especially after the TV series, soared. Justifiably, despite the less than attractive cover from Penguin.  Though written in a completely different style, I feel it can be set alongside Paul Scott’s magisterial Raj Quartet. Set in India during the time of the British Raj, M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions tells the story of Englishman Ashton Pelham-Martyn from birth in the 1850s, through the Indian Mutiny until the Second Afghan War, 1879.

Due to its scale, the story has to be told from an omniscient point of view. Yet individuals are strongly drawn and felt. This book has been likened to the Gone with the Wind of the North-West Frontier, and the comparison isn’t far off the mark. Although it’s a love story, it’s much more besides. It doesn’t pull any punches where brutality in all forms is encountered during these violent times. It depicts bravery, generosity, cruelty, honour, devoutness, passion, heroism and self-sacrifice.

The title comes from the Dur Khaima mountains, the Far Pavilions, with Tarakalas, the ‘Star Tower’, catching the first rays of the sunrise. Somewhere near was a fabulous valley dreamed of by Ashton’s surrogate mother, Sita, somewhere to live in peace and contentment without violence, prejudice and greed…

We know that politicians don’t seem to read history or learn from it. A year after this book was published, the USSR effectively invaded Afghanistan.  Ashton says, ‘The Afghans may be a murderous lot of ruffians with an unenviable reputation for treachery and ruthlessness, but no one has ever denied their courage; or been able to make them do anything they don’t like doing. And they don’t like being dictated to or ruled by foreigners – any foreigners!’ It applied in 1979 and, to all intents and purposes, it applies now.

It was fascinating to read of places such as Murree, Jamrud fort, Peshawar, Islamabad – all part of India at the time. In 1969, I went to these places when they were in West Pakistan, as well as the Khyber Pass, from where we looked over the plain of Kabul. (See my reminiscences of that visit ‘The Navy Lark up the Khyber’ pp142-151 in Under the Queen’s Colours, ‘voices from the Forces 1952-2012’ by Penny Legg).
In places, Kaye’s writing is exquisite, as are the sentiments and characterisations. A few brief examples: As an old sage remarks, ‘I know well that hearts are not like hired servants who can be hidden to do what we desire of them. They stay or go as they will, and we can neither hold nor prevent them. The gods know that I have lost and regained mine a dozen times. For which I have cause to be grateful, for my father lost his once only: to my mother. After she died he was never more than the shell of a man.’

‘The black stallion’s body and his own were one, and his blood sang in rhythm with the pounding hooves as the air fled past them and the ground flowed away beneath them as smoothly as a river.’

‘Below him a belt of scree fell steeply away down a gully that was bright with moonlight, and on either hand the bare hillsides swept upwards to shoulder a sky like a sheet of tarnished steel.’

An observer’s description of Ashton – ‘…the vulnerability of that thin, reckless face, the sensitive mouth that accorded so ill with the firm obstinate chin, and the purposeful line of the black eyebrows that were at odds with a brow and temples that would have better fitted a poet or a dreamer than a soldier.’  Whoever cast Ben Cross in the role got it very right indeed.
Here's a bookmark I made for the book...

When I closed this tome of 960 pages of tightly packed text, I felt slightly bereft. I seemed to live with many of these characters, and watched them grow older, live – and die – and now it was over, finished.

At the back, there are two pages of author’s notes providing relevant real-life happenings used in the narrative plus a useful 2-page glossary of Indian words and phrases.

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