Friday, September 10, 2010

Beau Geste by PC Wren

This is the great English novel of the French Foreign Legion—yet another of the old classics that has permeated our cultural subconscious, though that awareness is now fading. Back in the 1950s it was well-known enough to join classics such as Bridge on the River Kwai and 1984 in being parodied by the highly-esteemed Goon Show, as Under Two Floorboards: A Story of the Legion!

I've read a few of PC Wren's books, and Beau Geste stands head and shoulders above the rest. This is partly because of one of the most memorable opening sequences in English literature: Major Henri de Beaujolais and his Spahis cross the Sahara to the relief of Fort Zinderneuf, held by a dwindling band of legionnaires against hordes of the Arab enemy. When they get there, they find that motionless legionnaires still line the walls of Zinderneuf in an eerie silence. Three men disappear, the whole place burns to the ground, and a mysterious scrap of paper links the whole thing to a jewel-robbery years ago in England. But no-one at all can tell you what happened at Fort Zinderneuf.

No-one, that is, but John Geste, or Very Small Geste, youngest of the three Geste brothers, who all ran away to the French Foreign Legion when their aunt's famous sapphire was stolen. John knew he didn't do it, and he was pretty sure Michael and Digby didn't do it either. But it would take a long and harrowing ordeal in the desert before the truth came out.

PC Wren comes from one of my favourite literary schools: the one that believes in writing a rattling good plot, and to blazes with literary realism, existentialist angst, and characters almost so real you can kick them. Fortunately, in addition to having the kind of plot Shakespeare would have stolen if he lived a few hundred years later, Beau Geste also gets a lot of the details of life in the Legion correct; and the characters are huge fun to be around. I never met anyone that didn't like this book.

I've seen the black-and-white movie which starred Gary Cooper as Michael Geste, and I have to say he seemed a little old and pensive for the job; but otherwise it's an excellent, if not a brilliant, adaptation.

Gutenberg Australia etext

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