Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Beau Geste

Beau Geste by P.C. Wren
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P.C. Wren's 1924 Beau Geste, a seemingly dated novel of mystery and adventure, with settings that range from the comfortable drawing rooms of the landed gentry of an idealized England to the blazing deserts of a savage North Africa whose colonization is presented only with approval, actually remains quite a decent three-and-a-half- to four-star read.

The reader must understand, of course, that this book is not the place to look for modern notions of cultural tolerance, let alone cultural respect, of class, or of writing conventions. Nevertheless, once some of the cuteness of presentation and style is past--for things do get better as the plot moves forward--and so long as one can shrug at the occasional casual bits of racism or classism as being expected in a piece of this era, Beau Geste can be enjoyed for what it is.

Most of us reading this book have been brought to it, I presume, by the rousing black-and-white 1939 film version starring Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, and Ray Milland, along with Brian "Rapid fire, you dogs!" Donlevy. The broad strokes, therefore, are familiar--

When the electricity flickers out at stately old Brandon Abbas one night as Aunt Patricia allows her charges to view the magnificent "Blue Water" sapphire, the great jewel disappears before the lights come back on. 'Tis no mere practical joke, however, and although it is impossible that any of the handful of youth in the room could have stolen the thing, honorable Michael "Beau" Geste lights out for the territories the next day in the hope of taking the scandal upon himself rather than letting others face questioning and the sullying of their names. Soon his brothers Digby and John separately lam out as well so that the blame might be spread, and since all recall their childhood dream of joining the French Foreign Legion, that is where the jolly trio meet again.

Adventure and camaraderie ensue. Villains abound, whether jewel-hungry scoundrels, a commander so sadistic that he had to flee even the notorious Belgian Congo, mutineers suspicious of betrayal, or stereotypical bloodthirsty Arabs of the ululating and sword-waving variety. The three Geste brothers and a few more friends, all of whom hate their commander's unjust and savage ways but hate rising against the apparently glorious "Tri-coloure" even more, reluctantly back the cruel Lejaune during a mutiny, but just as he likely is about to order the rebels executed, Tuaregs swarm over the horizon, and all must defend the desert outpost against the hordes. Whenever a legionnaire is shot, the wily Lejaune props the dead or dying man at the parapet with rifle pointed outward in bluff, until finally Beau is hit, and then...

Well, but we of course know all this, don't we? Indeed, the foreknowledge from the movie makes it difficult, really, for the reader to envisage exactly how the original 1924 reader would have experienced the opening flashback mystery. Before we learn of the supposed jewel theft in England, after all, we see a relief column reach a lonely desert fort to find its besiegers driven off, its garrison all eerily dead at the posts...and yet, despite the apparent lack of life within the walls, there occurs inexplicable funny-business such as finding the snarling commander dead with a French bayonet in his heart while a peaceful-looking man has been laid out beside him, and artifacts having been moved in a supposedly abandoned fort, and the disappearance of an investigating trooper, and finally a spontaneous fire that consumes any possible evidence. These are interesting puzzles, and I wish I could have done justice to Wren's work by recapturing the first response that must have been intended.

The book does start rather slowly, though. The opening pages of third-person narrative belong to a British officer in the Nigerian Civil Service--again, God bless Empire, apparently--who from an old friend in the French military hears the tale of coming upon the fort and its mysteries. The presentation is somewhat cutesy, with an ebullient Frenchman being played off against a phlegmatic Englishman who punctuates the former's Gallic extravagance with laconic little quips and 1920s slang, for example, and the mostly-monologue telling seems to go on forever. Tension is heightened, though, when Beaujolais reveals that the peaceful dead man is one whom they both knew...and whose aunt, married to a spendthrift hunter of worldwide game both four- and two-legged, remains a bit dearer to Lawrence's heart than he quite dare admit.

In any event, once the opening tale closes, the rest of the book is John Geste's first-person narrative giving the backstory of the Geste brothers and their childhood in Brandon Abbas, the disappearance of the jewel, and the brothers' Foreign Legion adventures, right up through Beaujolais' discovery of the fort and its burning, and beyond--to escape across thousands of miles of desert with a pair of hickish but experienced and loyal American comrades in arms. John's tale begins with a jesting, superior sort of style that occasionally wears a tad thin, but the farther we go, the better it gets. The notion of facing death at the hands of mutineers, a ruthless commander, or torturing Arabs can be stared down with a stiff upper lip, eh, what?--but, really, there is good emotion here, too, as in the friendship for the quaint-speaking yet stout Yanks, the agony of losing one brother and then another, and the final selfless search of one of the ex-Texas Rangers for the companion who in his disappearance in the trackless desert most likely gave his life for this companions. At the end, of course, there will be marriages, with both John and Lawrence returning to merrie olde England--Sir Hector fortunately has died of well-deserved cholera, so Patricia is free once more--but I confess that these don't interest me as much as the months and months of travails in the Sahara.

Now, elephant-in-the-room-wise, I suppose I at least should comment a little further on the worldview of the novel. On the one hand, as Brian Stableford notes in the Afterword of my edition, not everything is about race and class here--there are good Europeans and bad ones, the unrefined Americans are noble in their honesty and simplicity, and the sedentary rather than raiding Arabs often are rather decent...though they are not spared from the superior loftiness of the English outlook here and there, of course. Clearly in Wren's picture of the world, white Europeans--namely the English, especially the upper-class English and, perhaps, the country-cousin Americans--are the best, and Arabs and black Africans are the worst, and even other European lands fit into this twentieth-century Great Chain of Being, with the amusing French being a hair lower on the scale than the laudable and complacent English, the plodding Germans being a bit lower still, then sneaky South Europeans such as the Italians, and so on. An occasional racial epithet occurs most casually on occasion, and the portrayal of the Jewish pawnbroker is not necessarily the least slanted piece of writing, shall we say.

Such sociopolitical artifacts of the time of writing are to be expected, though, so the reader who understands what a different world 1924 was should not be too shocked, or even appalled, no matter how appalling some sentiments would be today. More lastingly, the action of Beau Geste, as action, is exciting, as are the intrigues and double-dealings and subplots of the ruffians who menace the amiably joking brothers. What truly lasts here is Wren's investigation of duty: duty to family, duty to friends, even duty to the organization to which one has sworn allegiance--though our post-Nuremberg perspective will find the protagonist's reasoning in this last one not as developed as we would like. Loyalty here is a matter of honor, for it is loyalty to what is right and good rather than selfish...and although some of what the book finds "good" is not, the striving for what is right should not ever go out of style.
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Reading Progress

July 7, 2017 – Started Reading
July 16, 2017 – Shelved
July 16, 2017 – Finished Reading

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