Saturday, February 19, 2011

981. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Genre: Espionage, Thriller
Rating: 2. Not much good
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Penguin 1991

I was all prepared to like The Thirty-Nine Steps; after all it’s formed the basis of several movie versions amongst them an Alfred Hitchcock.

If you’ve noticed my hesitation and think a ‘but’ is coming … you’re right. Where do you go in a novel when in the first chapter you get references to:
• Jews like “… ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake”. (p17)
• “… the most finished piece of blackguardism.” (p19)
• “I haven’t the privilege of your name, sir, but let me tell you that you’re a white man.” (p21)

But given it’s the same character who says each of this things, I might be able to imagine there’s some justice in the world because he was killed at the end of the first chapter.

I’ve heard and read about judging language, acts and ideas out of context by applying a filter of today’s expectations to them. But my position is that I won’t accept that people accept as right saying or thinking something about others they wouldn’t like said about themselves … and the Jewish comment falls firmly into that camp. This statement conjures up the traditional Fagin-like Jewish character which is totally out of order.

What each of these comments shows is the importance of language. Language helps to shape people’s attitudes on a conscious and subconscious level; just think of the negative connotations of the colour black with references like ‘black cloud’ and ‘black mood’ and contrast these with the positive nature of white eg the purity of a bride. Now none of us are simple enough to believe that the entire white male population is homogenous enough to be considered decent but the mere fact we collectively understand the intent of this statement proves the hijacking has occurred.

These references pushed me to look a little further into John Buchan’s background, and he had an interesting life: a career in literature and government including private secretary to the colonial administrator of various colonies in southern Africa and Governor General of Canada. Not much of a clue into his privately held beliefs although time spent in southern Africa at the turn of the century would have placed him at the heart of British imperial and colonial thought.

Apart from this the book was a light easy read, and I don’t think it’s criticism to say it was an obvious book. It’s too bad, really, because I was inclined to like a man so raring for action (and I’m thinking James Bond here).

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