Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

History’s forgotten chapters

Mohamed El Mansi Kandil, Black Battalion, Dar El-Sherouk, 2015, reviewed by Nazek Fahmy

History’s forgotten chapters
History’s forgotten chapters
Al-Ahram Weekly

Based on little known but extremely bizarre historical events supposed to have taken place in the 1860s, this eerie novel is set both on land and at sea, and includes a wide variety of situations and characters.

In empire’s savage scramble for lands, which characterised the late 19th century, the Black Battalion, made up mostly of captured black slaves, is Ismail Pasha’s gift to his friends, the French. Displaced and bewildered, the unfortunate members of the battalion – many of whom were to lose their lives in this senseless power game – unwittingly become part of Napoleon III’s political scheme to rule Mexico by proxy.  The French expedition to Mexico, as it became known, was a crafty move to install the Hapsburg Maximilian and his wife Carlota, blue bloods both, but without the prospect of a throne, at the head of the Mexican government. 

This is global drama: political, economic and cultural, with contemporary resonance for good measure.  It is politics that includes Egypt, Italy, Austria, France, Mexico and the USA. Boasting a geography almost as far-flung, the novel starts in Africa, and crisscrosses the Atlantic between Europe and the New World, covering terrain as different as dry, sun-scorched deserts and lush, rain-drenched green landscapes. Nature and the animal world in both their benign and malignant forms loom large, from scenic rivers to mudslides, from wolves to crocodiles to rhinos, from butterflies to seagulls. The players come from all strata of society, from cocksure royalty to the most downtrodden of slaves, with everything in-between: slave traders, military officers and common peasants, cardinals and nuns, mercenaries and prostitutes. The impressive array of royalty flaunts Ismail Pasha of Egypt, Napoleon III of France and his bewitching Eugenie, the Austrian Franz Josef and his aloof Elizabeth, and at center stage, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and his ambitious but distressed Carlota. Public as well as private aspects of human existence are included, love and marriage, religious beliefs and practices, political conspiracies and civil unrest, hunger and  starvation, physical diseases – typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever – as well as mental illness. All this is played out by almost every race on the globe. We also run the gamut of human emotions: fear, envy, lust, ambition, bafflement and despair. In its racing narration, the novel makes a gargantuan attempt to harness almost every form of human experience, from the utter wretchedness of chattel slavery to the abyss of thwarted ambitions, from the frigidity of marble palaces to the frenzy of sexual orgies.  

Yet from Khartoum to Trieste, Vienna and beyond, there is an attempt to understand human action in terms of the human heart. The opening chapters, which trace the familiar story of the capture and inhuman transport of African slaves recreates with great mastery the revolting atmosphere of a stock slave narrative. These captured slaves form the nucleus of the Black Battalion, the human sacrifice, which Ismail Pasha chooses to present to the French Emperor to solidify the latter’s claim over Mexico.

At the heart of this novel about possession and dispossession lies the simple dictum: “Life is a riddle, we are born in a certain spot… and we do not know in which part of the earth our lives will end.” This simple philosophy is borne out on almost every page: no one is exempt, neither women nor men, neither white nor black, neither the high-born nor the destitute, neither the fortune hunters nor the idealists.

The main plot is the little known story of Maximilian, the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor, who found himself entangled in an intricate web of personal and national ambitions. When he was superciliously offered the throne of Mexico by the French, his wife, Carlota, daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, saw this as a golden opportunity to escape the shame and frustration of her childless state. Not surprisingly, the French expedition, which became little more than an exposure of human greed, lust and treachery, ends in disaster for the royal couple as well as many others. More interested in greenhouses than ruling, an idealistic and handsome young man, Maximilian is redeemed by his heroic last moments before the firing squad. Carlota’s dazzling prospects of ruling as Empress end most tragically in mental breakdown and madness.

Dramatic and sensational in its sequential structure, yet very matter of fact in its linguistic utterance, this novel does not follow a single storyline or focus on a single cast of characters. This is a huge canvas, full of conflicting voices and perspectives, multiple narratives and implausible twists and turns. In addition to the aforementioned complexity, the outlandish narrative is full of overlapping histories and travelling civilisations, races, plots and sub-plots, which blur the line between reality and imagination, both for the characters and the reader, resulting in many disorienting and surrealistic passages. 

This well-researched book is the fifth novel of a medical doctor turned writer. With a passion for history and many accolades to his name, Kandil has made a firm imprint on the Egyptian literary scene in recent years. Full of shifting maps and fortunes, this overcrowded novel is essentially about fetters and freedom, the blackness of the human heart and the age-old existential struggles of man. Into the motifs of degrading slave ships, forbidding citadels and courts, the familiar human tale is encrypted: futile quests and journeys and the desperation of unrealised dreams and desires. 

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