I recently finished a book by Rafael Sabatini, one of my favorite writers, but it wasn’t his best effort. On the contrary, On the Road to Samarcand, one of Patrick O’Brian’s first books, was utterly enthralling and about the most reading fun I’ve had since I finished HMS Surprise. As it predates Aubrey and Maturin it concerns a different (but nonetheless beloved) set of characters and is similarly an adventure novel. Rather than the Napoleonic Wars, it concerns the 1930s (I think) and though there is one stirring scene at sea, it mostly takes place on land.
It’s the unlikely story of a young American boy whose missionary parents have died in China. He is in the care of his uncle Terry Sullivan, an Irishman by birth, an American citizen by choice, and captain of his own schooner. Sullivan and his compadre Ross—a Scottish engineer—determine the boy, Derrick, should be sent to school at the behest of his cousin, the English professor Ayrton. Joining their overland party on the road to Samarcand is Olaf, a Swedish sailor, and Li Han, a Chinese sea-cook with aspirations of a University degree. Derrick acquires an enormous dog named Chang, and in the company of three Mongols including Chingiz who is Derrick’s age, they find the road to Samarcand more and more elusive. But as Viggo Mortensen once said—and as Tolkien knew very well—the point isn’t the destination, but the journey.
The book begins with a typhoon, proving it does indeed have the O’Brian pedigree. At this stage you realize that its O’Brian’s confidence as a storyteller that may be responsible for his success. He writes about a typhoon as if he were accustomed to surviving them regularly. He writes about Chinese war lords, the Gobi Desert, the Himalayas, South Seas pirates, and ancient Han jade as if he had a degree in all these things. As a consequence, the reader follows him anywhere, without question, thirsting for the next plot twist.
O’Brian is also a master of humor. Most of the humor derives from Olaf’s literal response to situations, Li Han’s over-exaggerated dialect, or indeed the Professor. In my mind I had the voice of Nicholas Pegg, who played Captain Emanuel Swan in Doctor Who and the Pirates, as the Professor, but the truth is, the Professor was much braver and much more likeable than Swan. The Professor begins as an erudite, effeminate academic. To make Derrick “feel more at home,” he learns Americanisms and goes through the rest of the book calling people “swollen.” (He means that they’re swell.) “I am sure you are a very swollen guy, and we shall be great budlets.”
But, as I say, the Professor grows in sagacity and courage. You fear, like the rest of the crew, that he will be a total liability on the road (despite his fluent Chinese), when he cares more about pot sherds than heeding dead bodies on the ground. Turns out the “peaceful scientific expedition” runs afoul of the terrifying warlord Shun Li who captures Ross and Sullivan. It is astonishing to what lengths a human being can be pushed if the safety of his friends is on the line. The Professor effects a daring escape by posing as a Russian collaborator, Derrick as a simple Mongol boy, and Li Han as a seller of charms (which happen to cause the breakdown of all the warlord’s tanks and lorries, a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in Indiana Jones). When the Professor has the chance, in a rather stunning transformation, he turns the gun on Shun Li. “You know, I have half a mind to shoot this loathsome fellow before we leave.”
“You’re not going to, are you, sir? He’s unarmed.”
“No. I am not. But it would be a taste of his own medicine, and one so rarely has the opportunity of expressing one’s dislike so forcibly.” Fortunately Shun Li gets his just desserts without the Professor having to take to violence. Such a thing might happen to someone the Doctor had spared!
The book takes a very interesting stance toward violence, despite the fact the characters practice it constantly. “Aggressive war is the great crime of the world.” This is consistent with remarks made upon religion: “It is always the same terribly sad story, over and over again. With us it is Catholic and Protestant—first one oppressing the other with horrible cruelty . . . With the Mohammedans you have the extreme, bloody-minded puritans and then on the other hand, the open-minded Sufi.” I have to say, the lamas of Tibet do not come off very well, with the Red-Hats being unbearable aggressors and the Great Silent Ones being incredibly arrogant.
But by comparison, the rogues in the book are heroes. Ross and Sullivan’s friend, the Tu chun Hsien Lu, is full of stories of derring-do; Sullivan’s escapades as a pirate after being shanghaied (and his Robin Hood/Little John meeting with Ross) fill pages. Olaf’s experiences with his Lapland grandmother are as interesting as the Professor’s long digression on jade. The only things missing, curiously, are Derrick’s reminisces about his parents. Much is made of education; Sullivan and the Professor are equally esteemed, as Jack and Stephen were in the Master and Commander books.
I was just reflecting that there were no women in the book when, after being cornered by two armies of Kazaks, the party found themselves in a Tibetan village. Not only were there women there, but it’s a matrilineal, polyandrous (“Polly Andrews!” exclaims Olaf) society that takes a shine to Olaf. This section of the book had me in fits of laughter for 10 pages. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lack of women in O’Brian’s books is a bit curious. To be sure, when Sophia Williams and Diana Villiers show up in Post Captain, they are so well-written, you can be certain it’s not lack of skill that keeps female characters out of O’Brian. I wonder if he shares Sullivan’s opinion: “I’ve had something to do with women, and they’re all the same: they always get you down in the end.”
I was quite delighted to see the expedition have a run in with the Abominable Snowmen, though O’Brian is—just as well—equivocal about it. In tone, it’s very similar to The Long Walk, which used to be my favorite book of all time. I also wonder if both books might not have inspired the Doctor Who story about the Yeti. The end of the book has the kind of astonishing send-off you’d expect as a climax to all this adventure, and I admit I cried.
The characters may not be as well-developed as Aubrey and Maturin, but I came to care for them very, very much, as they grow to care for each other. The scene of the Professor clasping Li Han and valuing him over the priceless jade given to them by Hsien Lu is awfully cinematic. So, too, is the expedition walking past the thousands of skulls at the Kazak Tomb. Why this (and The Long Walk) have not been long ago developed into films, I can only conjecture (probably due to the authors’ refusal). I wish they’d let me make a film out of it! (My mom and I have already decided on a cast list.) I was very happy when, everywhere they went, the expedition drank tea (green and in bowls) and had the yak-butter tea as described in The Empire of Tea. This is likely a region of the world I will never get to, but it is wonderful fun to read about.