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Remarkable Men and Women; Unremarkable Writing
on 12 November 2011
Sir Ranulph Fiennes may be (certainly is) a great explorer and adventurer, but he is not a great writer. This book moves along not on the strength or deftness of his writing (often jumpy and cliché-riddled, with paragraphs sometimes inserted seemingly at random), but on the drama inherent in the stories themselves. But does the writing matter? This depends on why you read a book like this. Is it for the beauty of the writing itself, or for the power of the stories? For me, at least in this case, it is the latter, so I was not as disturbed by the writing as I might have been if I thought I were reading a work of literary art. In eleven chapters and an introduction, Fiennes tells stories of prodigious feats of endurance, survival, courage, determination, faith, and maybe even madness. I'm not sure I would call them all heroes, but then, this book isn't about my heroes, is it? It's about people Sir Ranulph considers heroes, and the definition of heroism is always subjective anyway. I think the best attempt I ever heard to distinguish between courage and heroism is that heroism is great courage for the sake of others. But that's only one possible definition, and anyone that you hold up as a role model because of his or her acts of courage, skill, or determination might just as easily be described as your hero. And who knows? If you ask me again tomorrow I might be ready to change my own definition of heroism.
Though most come from the 20th century, the stories in this book range in time from plague-infected England in the 17th century to the violence in Zimbabwe following the stolen election of 2008. The heroes include adventurers, soldiers, police, a journalist, a missionary, and just ordinary people who showed uncommon mettle when their character was put to the test. Some of these stories I already knew in one form or another, but others were new to me. Each one was impressive, and you could certainly do worse than spend a few hours with this book. Some may inspire you to study more. You won't learn much about the genocide in Rwanda, that you don't already know from seeing Terry George's film "Hotel Rwanda," for example, but having been reminded of the heroism of Paul Rusesabagina, I now want to read the autobiography of this heroic former hotel manager who undoubtedly saved the lives of many hundreds during the 1994 madness that claimed perhaps a million lives in Rwanda. I had read Mawson's Will, Lennard Bickel's excellent account of Douglas Mawson's amazing survival in harsh Antarctic conditions in 1912-1913, but now I want to read the Australian geologist/explorer's own account. Several of the stories that Fiennes retells have also been the subject of films: "Hotel Rwanda," "Valkyrie," "The Killing Fields," and whatever number of films have been made about the Crimean War, while "The Interpreter," though overtly referring to a fictional African country, is almost certainly based on Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The people whose stories Fiennes has chosen to tell all lived lives to admire in one way or another, though few of us, I suspect, would be prepared to emulate them.