Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

This is the second of Buchan’s five thrillers told in the first person by the bluff, straight-talking South African mining engineer-cum posh chap Richard Hannay. Whereas the Thirty-Nine Steps which is about foiling a German plot to smuggle military secrets out of England, is set just before the outbreak of the Great War, this sequel was written between February and June 1916 and is very much set during the Great War: the  plot starts in November 1915 and goes on into early 1916. (NB In June 1916 Buchan joined the intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in July the first installment of the Greennmantle appeared in Land and Water magazine. Buchan’s role working for British propaganda is worth bearing in mind when reading any of his books, and I will discuss more fully in the next blog post, about Mr Standfast.)

The plot

Hannay is joined in his adventure by three friends: Sandy Arbuthnot, a dashing hero who is blood brother to half the tribes of bedouin and gypsies throughout the Middle East (‘He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before.’); Peter Pienaar, a grizzled old big game hunter friend of Hannay’s from South Africa; John S. Blenkiron, a tubby and extremely knowledgeable American on our side.

Sir Walter Bullivant, the senior intelligence man who came to Hannay’s aid in the Steps, now informs them there is a dastardly German plot to cause a muslim uprising against the British in the Middle East and beyond, down the east coast of Africa. Our heroes are tasked with finding out who’s organising it and stopping it.

This rather vague commission leads them to plan to journey via separate routes to Istanbul to find out everything  they can along the way, rendezvous, and come up with a plan. While Blenkiron travels in style through Germany posing as an outspoken opponent of the War and of the Allies and Sandy plans his own mysterious journey via the Med, Hannay poses as a disgruntled South African Boer ready to throw in his lot with the Germans, and this leads him to be presented to the sinister Hun General von Stumm, to overhear vital conversations, and then to escape and go on the run through the winter snows of Germany, involving extremes of physical endurance, car chases, fake identities and so on.

Plot shift – a volta?

In the Alistair MacLean novels I identified the frequent use of an abrupt volta or shift, whereby the hero reveals he is something completely different from what he’d led us to believe for the first half of the text. Something similiar though less calculating happens in the Thirty-Nine Steps: the first half of the plot is driven by Hannay’s need to hide from the German spy organisation until he can get news to the authorities about their plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister on a state visit to London. But in the last chapter or so, the Greek PM is assassinated and, suddenly, it doesn’t matter because it has become a much more chamber affair of a German spy impersonating the First Sea Lord – an incident Hannay happens to witness through incredible coincidence as he happens to be waiting outside the meeting to see Bullivant, the head of British intelligence. It is only by the slenderest of accidents that Hannay spots this and realises the true meaning of the fragmentary message about the 39 steps ie they are steps down to the sea from a coastal house for a German spy to escape taking the information the imposter has learned at this high-level meeting.

Well, the same thing happens in Greenmantle. The first half or more relates Hannay’s dashing adventures in wintry Germany, before he finally makes it to Istanbul where our heroes meet up and establish that a new muslim prophet has arisen and is being steered and managed by a fiendish German mastermind. BUT then the book’s focus changes. Whereas the uprising had formerly been a general jihad of all muslims in the Middle East, now it becomes focused on the battle around the eastern city of Erzerum where the Russians are besieging the Turkish Army, bolstered by German forces – and then, in exactly the kind of slender coincidence on which the Steps turned, Hannay – escaping over rooftops from pursuing soldiers – accidentally sees the General poring over plans before leaving the room, so – in a typical moment of dash and pluck – Hannay opens the window, nips across the room and snaffles the plans, returns to the window, and completes his rooftop escape. The plans turn out to be the enemy deployments around Erzerum and, in a further adventure, our heroes smuggle them through enemy lines to the Russians who, thus informed, are able to storm the city and capture that front.

(Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that the final scene, the climax of the book, where the attacking Cossacks not only rescue Hannay and pals from being shelled by the wicked von Stumm, but also lend them horses so they can lead the cavalry charge into Erzerum, is genuinely exciting and thrilling.)

A small world of toffs

The upper class world Hannay inhabits is small: everyone of importance in England knows everyone else or has heard of them via the public school network; and similarly, everyone abroad is connected with that network somehow, creating an international matrix of acquaintances. For example, when Peter Pienaar arrives after perilously crossing the front line between the Turkish and Russian armies, it is absolutely classic that the Russian general he is presented to turns out to be a decent feller who he once went wild game shooting with in Matabeleland. Of course.  In this world there are only two or three hundred people of note who all went to school together or are related to each other or a few foreigners who one has had scrapes with.

This small world is, to quote Auden, ‘everso comfy’. It is part of the childishness of these thrillers not only that our chaps will get out of their scrapes, but that their and our values are correct, the only decent ones – and shared by all good-hearted people everywhere ie all the upper crust people or chaps who’ve knocked about and done a bit of hunting. There is none of the anxiety or alienation which has struck most writers as characteristic of the 20th century world. This uber-confidence is most apparent in Buchan’s amazing prose style.

Style

People say Buchan’s adventures are fast-paced. Sure, things happen and, after a generally slow start, at an accelerating rate – but I suggest the sense of ‘pace’ is created by his amazingly crisp and no-nonsense style. By pacy I mean his ability to describe a person, place or situation in a minimum of words, with precise, well-turned phrases. This lack of dawdling, no hesitation or doubt, this ability to say things fast, creates a sense of speed even when not much is actually happening. The opening sentences are:

I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant’s telegram. It was at Furling, the big country house in Hampshire where I had come to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who was in the same case, was hunting for the marmalade. I flung him the flimsy with the blue strip pasted down on it, and he whistled. (Chapter 1)

Setting: breakfast, pipe, marmalade. the same super-English atmosphere of cosy domesticity that characterises Sherlock and Watson. Actions: flung, whistled; aristocratic gestures of nonchalance, calm, confident, urbane. This is the tone throughout, the unflustered Englishman. When they meet to plan it is in Claridges, the Savoy, their club.

There was a motor-car waiting—one of the grey military kind—and we started at a terrific pace over bad forest roads. Stumm had put away his papers in a portfolio, and flung me a few sentences on the journey. (Ch 5)

Pace, speed, flung. Cars were relatively new and almost as soon as they were invented they were being stolen and involved in high speed chases: Hannay steals one in Germany and then another in Turkey. Here he is ditching his stolen car, sounding like Raymond Chandler 20 years later.

Presently I came on a bit of rough heath, with a slope away from the road and here and there a patch of black which I took to be a sandpit. Opposite one of these I slewed the car to the edge, got out, started it again and saw it pitch head-foremost into the darkness. There was a splash of water and then silence. Craning over I could see nothing but murk, and the marks at the lip where the wheels had passed. (Ch 7)

Pen portraits and memorable scenes

The precision and briskness of his style lends itself to acute pen portraits and memorable scenes, written with verve and clarity. Probably the most tremendous is when he is accompanying von Stumm as a potential helper and ally, and finds himself being presented to the Kaiser himself!

At the far side of the station a train had drawn up, a train consisting of three big coaches, chocolate-coloured and picked out with gold. On the platform beside it stood a small group of officers, tall men in long grey-blue cloaks. They seemed to be mostly elderly, and one or two of the faces I thought I remembered from photographs in the picture papers.

As we approached they drew apart, and left us face to face with one man. He was a little below middle height, and all muffled in a thick coat with a fur collar. He wore a silver helmet with an eagle atop of it, and kept his left hand resting on his sword. Below the helmet was a face the colour of grey paper, from which shone curious sombre restless eyes with dark pouches beneath them. There was no fear of my mistaking him. These were the features which, since Napoleon, have been best known to the world.

I stood as stiff as a ramrod and saluted. I was perfectly cool and most desperately interested. For such a moment I would have gone through fire and water.

‘Majesty, this is the Dutchman I spoke of,’ I heard Stumm say.

‘What language does he speak?’ the Emperor asked.

‘Dutch,’ was the reply; ‘but being a South African he also speaks English.’

A spasm of pain seemed to flit over the face before me. Then he addressed me in English.

‘You have come from a land which will yet be our ally to offer your sword to our service? I accept the gift and hail it as a good omen. I would have given your race its freedom, but there were fools and traitors among you who misjudged me. But that freedom I shall yet give you in spite of yourselves. Are there many like you in your country?’

‘There are thousands, sire,’ I said, lying cheerfully. ‘I am one of many who think that my race’s life lies in your victory. And I think that that victory must be won not in Europe alone. In South Africa for the moment there is no chance, so we look to other parts of the continent. You will win in Europe. You have won in the East, and it now remains to strike the English where they cannot fend the blow. If we take Uganda, Egypt will fall. By your permission I go there to make trouble for your enemies.’

A flicker of a smile passed over the worn face. It was the face of one who slept little and whose thoughts rode him like a nightmare. ‘That is well,’ he said. ‘Some Englishman once said that he would call in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. We Germans will summon the whole earth to suppress the infamies of England. Serve us well, and you will not be forgotten.’

Then he suddenly asked: ‘Did you fight in the last South African War?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ I said. ‘I was in the commando of that Smuts who has now been bought by England.’

‘What were your countrymen’s losses?’ he asked eagerly.

I did not know, but I hazarded a guess. ‘In the field some twenty thousand. But many more by sickness and in the accursed prison-camps of the English.’

Again a spasm of pain crossed his face.

‘Twenty thousand,’ he repeated huskily. ‘A mere handful. Today we lose as many in a skirmish in the Polish marshes.’

Then he broke out fiercely.

‘I did not seek the war … It was forced on me … I laboured for peace … The blood of millions is on the heads of England and Russia, but England most of all. God will yet avenge it. He that takes the sword will perish by the sword. Mine was forced from the scabbard in self-defence, and I am guiltless. Do they know that among your people?’

‘All the world knows it, sire,’ I said.

He gave his hand to Stumm and turned away. The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker’s curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe … (ch 6)

Similarly, he meets the leader of Turkey, Ismail Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and effective leader of the Ottoman Empire in both Balkan Wars and World War I.

But the great event was the sight of Enver. He was a slim fellow of Rasta’s build, very foppish and precise in his dress, with a smooth oval face like a girl’s, and rather fine straight black eyebrows. He spoke perfect German, and had the best kind of manners, neither pert nor overbearing. He had a pleasant trick, too, of appealing all round the table for confirmation, and so bringing everybody into the talk. Not that he spoke a great deal, but all he said was good sense, and he had a smiling way of saying it. Once or twice he ran counter to Moellendorff, and I could see there was no love lost between these two. I didn’t think I wanted him as a friend—he was too cold-blooded and artificial; and I was pretty certain that I didn’t want those steady black eyes as an enemy. But it was no good denying his quality. The little fellow was all cold courage, like the fine polished blue steel of a sword. (ch 13)

Racism

Anti-semitism No point denying it. Hannay is given to quick stereotypes of all sorts of races and nationalities – it’s part of the speedy summing-up of people and places which is an aspect of his upper-class English confidence and of his style. Nonetheless, his comments about Jews go above and beyond this stereotyping to have an unpleasant, vengeful flavour.

In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises. (Ch 6)

Poor old Peter had no greatcoat, so we went into a Jew’s shop and bought a ready-made abomination, which looked as if it might have been meant for a dissenting parson… Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again. (Ch 11)

Blacks There is one stunning reference to blacks which recalls Hannay’s character as a man who’s spent a lot of time in South Africa based, of course, on Buchan’s own time as assistant to the High Commissioner in South Africa from 1901 to 1903.

He liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn’t been a nigger-driver for nothing. (Ch 9)

Whites the corollary of these stereotypes of other races is, if you like, a stereotype of the good white man, phrases which assume his unquestioned place at the top of the racial pyramid. In particular I was startled to read the phrase ‘like a white man’ used to denote, well, being a sound chap.

That fellow gave me the best ‘feel’ of any German I had yet met. He was a white man and I could have worked with him. I liked his stiff chin and steady blue eyes. (Ch 4)

Gaudian was clearly a good fellow, a white man and a gentleman. I could have worked with him for he belonged to my own totem. (Ch 5)

Still the ride did us good and shook up our livers, and by the time we turned for home I was feeling more like a white man. (Ch 14)

Good Germans

But Buchan is wise enough not to belabour the stereotypes: in the race across Germany section of the book he goes to great lengths to describe good Germans: the engineer Gaudian is honest and open. There is a maybe sentimental but nonetheless moving account of the poor woman who takes Hannay in in the depths of winter and allows him to have his malaria bout in her quiet attic room and in return Hannay carves toys for her poor children. And there’s a long sequence where Hannay manages to get a berth on a set of barges from Essen which is chugging south through Austria and, as he does so, gets to know the captain and crew and gets, as usual, to like them.

It is one of Hannay’s endearing qualities that he is quick to see the good side of people, or to admire them, even if he disagrees with them or they are sworn enemies.

Gynophobia

As with She, Rider Haggard’s classic boys adventure story about the Eternal Woman, Greenmantle suggests the English public school boy has made little or no progress in being able to accept or understand women as women. Buchan’s Hilda von Einem must run Ayesha a close second in the stakes of being a shocking collection of feminine (and sexist?) clichés.

Although she’s meant to be the wicked mastermind behind the whole uprising plan, the entire new prophet-von Einem-muslim uprising part of the plot doesn’t come alive for me. It is the monstrous General von Stumm and the intense period Hannay spends with him in Germany, and then the long escape through the snow, and the long barge ride down the Danube, and then von Stumm’s magical reappearance in Erzerum to chase and corner Hannay and chums on an isolated hilltop, it is these elements of the book which have real life because they are the physical tests and tribulations which are the core of the good thriller – the sense of a fit man pushed to the physical and mental limit – and are described with such vividness.

I must have run miles before the hot fit passed, and I stopped from sheer bodily weakness. There was no sound except the crush of falling snow, the wind seemed to have gone, and the place was very solemn and quiet. But Heavens! how the snow fell! It was partly screened by the branches, but all the same it was piling itself up deep everywhere. My legs seemed made of lead, my head burned, and there were fiery pains over all my body. I stumbled on blindly, without a notion of any direction, determined only to keep going to the last. For I knew that if I once lay down I would never rise again. (Ch 7)

Jihad and the muslim world

A hundred years after this novel speculated about a muslim uprising in the Middle East against the Western powers, the forces of ISIS are storming through Iraq and claiming Syria as part of the Caliphate. Is it a topical subject, or just a subject which never goes away in the muslim world, a world which seems to permanently long to return to the imagined purity of some fictional middle ages. What is a bit more characteristic is Buchan/Hannay’s assumption that this is a world only Brits can really understand – unlike the blundering Germans and – later – Americans.

Buchan knows his and Hannay’s limits, so he gives the role of special insight into the Arab mind, and into the muslim prophet who is called Greenmantle, to fellow hero Sandy Arbuthnot:

‘I never saw such a man. He is the greatest gentleman you can picture, with a dignity like a high mountain. He is a dreamer and a poet, too – a genius if I can judge these things. I think I can assess him rightly, for I know something of the soul of the East, but it would be too long a story to tell now. The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in colour and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong. The Kaf he yearns for is an austere thing. It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror…  It always wants the same things at the back of its head. The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by the by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert. Remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them – these, and the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay. It isn’t inhuman. It’s the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn’t ours, it isn’t as good as ours, but it’s jolly good all the same. There are times when it grips me so hard that I’m inclined to forswear the gods of my fathers!

Probably critics would damn this and Buchan’s entire approach as Orientalist ie assuming Western superiority to a stereotype of the corrupt, lazy East. But it feels to me an accurate enough dramatisation of that mentality, of the mentality of the jolly rugger captain whose soul is captured by the simplicity and purity of bedouin life and becomes a devotee of Arab culture, from Sir Richard Burton to the TE Lawrence who was making a name for himself among the Arabs just as Greenmantle was published.

Related links

Cover of Greenmantle, 1916

Book cover of Greenmantle, 1916

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