Colonel Pyat, Harry Flashman and the Historical Scoundrel

                I just finished reading Byzantium Endures, which is historical fiction about the Russian Revolution by Michael Moorecock — the same guy who did the Elric stories that I wrote about earlier. Moorcock wrote Byzantium Endures as the first part of the Colonel Pyat Quartet, which follows the adventures of a Russian engineer, cocaine addict and anti-hero through the first half the Twentieth Century. It was written a bit later than Elric and is almost completely different. There’s no fanciful magic swords or elementals to be found here, only the brutality of a violent chapter in a violent history of a violent place. Through it all, Colonel Pyat — the narrator and protagonist — remains an absolutely scumbag. His reliability, as is his sanity, is doubtful. Like many Russians at the time, he’s a massive anti-Semite and racist and has occasional asides where he tells the reader his insane, rambling conspiracy theories where he laments the Jewish-Maoist-Communist-Islamic conspiracy to destroy the world. In the story, he abuses women, lies and cheats, switches sides continuously and snorts a lot of cocaine. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character and he reminded me a lot of George Macdonald Fraser’s Victorian scoundrel, Harry Paget Flashman.

                Flashman is actually a character from an 1857 Boarding School novel called Tom Brown’s School Days, where he’s a bully and villain. Fraser took Flashman and wrote him into a series of adventures where he travels around the world throughout the Victorian Era and becomes involved in countless military misadventures like the British defeat in Afghanistan, the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Indian Mutiny. Through it all, Flashman’s a constant scumbag. He’s a coward, a bully, a braggart, treats women terribly and is also an unrepentant racist. He has several similarities with Colonel Pyat, especially in the way they do the Forest Gump/Little Big Man thing of bumping around, meeting historical personages and occasionally secretly influencing important events. Additionally, both characters are presented as real people discovered by the authors. Fraser claims that he found Flashman’s memoirs and is merely transcribing them. Moorcock says that he found Colonel Pyat running a used clothing store in London and interviewed him, then examined his diary. This handy device lets the characters seem a little more real and puts their villainy in the proper context and — as it turns out — that villainy is the perfect context from which to view history.

                Because, when we really think about it, these characters are true to history. The people of the past were racist, sexist, classist and cruel. They lied and betrayed and cheated. Flashman and Colonel Pyat fit right in. And the authors both reveal that aspects of the past are responsible for forging Flashman and Colonel Pyat’s worst traits. For instance, Colonel Pyat may spout anti-Semitic claptrap, but he himself is a Jew. His absentee father was Jewish and everyone always assumes he’s a Jew and bullies him accordingly. It creates a deep self-loathing in Colonel Pyat, which he pushes out against the Jews as if to prove his own self-worth — he always claims that his father was a Cossack. It doesn’t work and the poor guy is insulted and abused by everyone he comes across. After you see what an actual Cossack does to him and hear what is implied to have happened to his mother during the Holocaust, his hatred becomes somewhat understandable. Flashman’s reasons for villainy aren’t as fleshed out, but you do get to see his father in some of the early books and quickly realize that he’s every bit as awful as Flashman is.

                Furthermore, the characters’ dishonorable attitudes actually make a lot of sense given their situations. Flashman’s cowardice seems bad at first, but when you consider the stupid, nationalistic nonsense that motivates many of his comrades to run off and die for Queen and Country, it makes a lot of sense. It leads to situations, like when Flashman is caught between fanatic Indian rebels and fanatic British soldiers in the Indian Mutiny, where his desire not to fight seems like something a rational person would do. When you find yourself commanded by idiots like Lord Raglan and George Armstrong Custer, any right thinking person would probably want to run away. It’s similar for Colonel Pyat. Switching sides at the drop of the hat, becoming a Bolshevik, a Ukrainian nationalist or a White Russian Cossack depending on who has the most power, seems pretty sleazy. But when you actually look at the Russian Civil War (as you can thanks to some historical background info that Moorcock includes in the back of the book), it’s easy to see that everyone was betraying everyone else in the Civil War and constantly switching sides — or just going rogue and running around looting and murdering Jews. The only faction with any honor (who protected Jews instead of massacring them) are the anarchist Black Army under Nestor Makhno, and even they cold-bloodedly betray and execute their enemies during a parley. Colonel Pyat is only doing what everyone else is.

                 Colonel Pyat claims to be born in 1900 and is the same age as the century — which he represents. It was a violent nasty century and as Flashman shows, the 1800s weren’t much better. These days, we’ve mostly done away with any romantic notions of the past, but they do tend to linger. It’s always good to have some historical scoundrels to point out the truth about things. Though they may be difficult to like, it’s always rewarding to follow them around.

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