Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Consul at Sunset by Gerald Hanley

If you were looking for the opposite number in the real world of the mythical colony of Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee then The Consul at Sunset (pub.1951) by Gerald Hanley (1916 - 1992) is it. It’s not a Roman world but the light is fading on an Empire, a British one, and its representatives civil and military are losing the certainty of purpose that sustained men in the vile climate of duty when map pink was nigh continuous. In this case the smooth running of a country is complicated by its temporary status. There’s a war on and the country is Ethiopia. The Italians having been defeated, a British command with a similar structure to other colonies is in place but now the District Commisioner is called a Political Officer.

The novel opens with an exceptionally well wrought character called Colonel Casey putting Captain Sole in the picture. Sole is about to go up country to replace Captain Milton as P.O. Captain Turnbull is the military man in charge of the lately Italian fort. Unlike the mad Madhi of that region who is frequently mentioned the Italians are not regarded as Kipling wrote as first rate fighting men. (a poor benighted 'eathen but a first-rate fighting man) Turnbull promoted from the non-commissioned ranks has simply taken over the job of keeping the Omar Bilash and the Yonis Barra tribes from their feuding over water holes, camel raiding and the settling of scores. Turnbull is a real warrior, D.C.M. at Dunkirk and all that but not a gentleman and it takes a gentleman to deal with savages. The truth in that is of course the ancient one of birth rank and blood which is primal. Throughout the book there is the irony of the parallel interpretation of the actions of the opposed forces. Servants are the carriers of the tales to the chiefs and they are rewarded for it. Mischief is brewing over the rights to water holes. The lesser and weaker tribe who gave up their guns to the British have uncustomary access to the water and even though there is plenty for all this usurpation of the natural order is galling. The Omar Bilash kept their guns and are planning raids. Captain Milton is under the sway of a Yonis Barra woman and does not see the danger and the need for more troops.

Hanley served as a Capt. in the King’s Own Rifles in Somaliland and he knows the country well:

A hot wind sprang up every evening at El Ashang. Dusk there was the desert dusk of greys dying into blues and fierce, bronze scarves of fire. And there was a curious silence at that time as though all men, women and children were quiet and listening to the wind, which softened and then quickened into sand-laden blasts; or as though to the dusk which seemed to hold mystery and lonliness. The hot wind came in from the desert, blowing the dried dust of camel dung and sand into the air, until long ridges of limestone appeared through the shale like the bones of the earth. When the moon came up these bones showed themselves white and grey against the reddish sand. The wind died quickly and the darkness rushed in, hiding the huddles of several hundred skin and splinter huts, and the low stone buildings of the merchants, the wooden coffee houses and the crumbling mosque.

Things come to a head and character is tested in the debacle. I found that quite convincing. In the considerable literature of Empire his work stands out and it is remarkable that he seems to have slipped into obscurity. The Year of the Lion (1953) set in Kenya was admired by Hemingway. Yes, come back Hanley, the Empire is over and all is forgiven. As an Irishman by descent and self-election he was agin it of course.

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