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For people who hate literature
on 24 February 2010
Every so often I get the feeling that a good old timey adventure book would be a good thing to read. This is (hopefully) the last time I think this as the results are always dire. Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" was one hell of a struggle. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday" was dreadful. However, Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" takes the prize for most unreadable load of old toss ever.
3 Englishmen ponce into Africa on a treasure hunt. They cross romantic terrain, shoot majestic animals, patronise and insult black people, before leaving with a few pocketfuls of giant diamonds back to Blighty. What ho!
Sounds a bit of a lark, what? It's not. First off, Haggard has his hero Quatermain say in the first chapter that they went to Africa, did this, did that, and made it back home with the treasure. Oh great, now I'm really on the edge of my seat. Now when Quatermain and chums are in danger and the chapter ends on a "cliffhanger" (by Victorian standards) I'll know that they make it out because this was explained in the first chapter!
Also, Haggard has the annoying habit of describing every single meaningless detail in a scene. So when they cross the desert, you have endless descriptions of wind, and how thirsty everyone is, and how if they don't make it they'll die and the characters start whinging and don't stop and will they make it..? Look an oasis, we're saved! No tension whatsoever anyway, we all know they make it BECAUSE THEY SAY SO AT THE START! All this needless exposition and attempts at drama are useless if we know the characters make it.
The most offending attempt at literature in this amazingly labelled "classic" is the way Haggard deals with Africans. They're all "noble savages" who for some reason speak like medieval dukes. "Thou hast", "ye", "sayest not", "hark", etc all make regular appearances in their speech but does he honestly think Africans speak like that?! The Englishmen patronise the Africans like pets and Haggard has the Africans run about like gormless children, either behaving "nobly" ie. standing around bored saying nothing, or like coked up teens with a hormone imbalance, ie. screaming, tearing hair, killing people randomly. No attempt at characterisation is made and none of the characters seem at all real. In fact they all sound remarkably the same, like a middle class educated Englishman.
This is the most tedious novel I've ever read, it actually made me angry while I was reading. Haggard can't seem to accept the reader has the capacity to fill in the gaps. For example, rather than say "they went to the ridge and sat down", he has to say "they gathered up their things (items are listed and digressed), and after several parting words (list numerous mundane words), hastened up the path (description of path and weather), while we wondered about (list everything thats happened thus far) and upon reaching the ridge (list various mundane observations the characters have made while walking) we sat down and gazed at the view (list needless description of mountain range)." It's EXHAUSTING. I hurled the book away from me every time I sat it down (about every 3 chapters) and am amazed at my tolerance for poor writing.
How is this a classic? It's not at all on the level of "Great Expectations" or "The Picture of Dorian Gray" or numerous other examples. There's no profundity, no great story, no great writing. Haggard is a very minor writer and his contribution to literature is very small, if at all recognisable. I am amazed this is listed as a classic when it is the 1880s version of a Lee Child novel. Give this a wide book berth, it's appalling.