Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Book Report: The Great Game Trilogy

Welcome to the show folks...

Bit of a turn from my usual ranting and raving about the business of popular culture where I show off my superiority in revealing to you that I still read books.

You do remember books, paper thingies with words on the pages.

Okay, that's enough
smug know it all posturing for now, and let's get to what I recommend as some damn fine reading.

Now I'm a bit of a history buff, and I especially like looking into what I call the nooks and crannies of history. Places, events, and people not normally covered by mainstream history.

Well you can't get much more nookier or crannier (are those even words?) that the Great Game Trilogy by journalist and historian Peter Hopkirk. The books are
The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire, and Setting The East Ablaze: Lenin's Dream of an Empire in Asia.

Now if you know nothing about the subject matter covered by these three books I should drop a little background on your lap.

It all begins in the 1700s. The British were in control of India, and didn't want the Russians getting control of India. In between India and Russia were literally dozens if not hundreds of kingdoms, city-states, and tribal territories. The Russian aimed to conquer those vast and mostly unmapped lands for their own riches but also as a pathway to the Jewel in the Crown, India.

The British responded with adventurous men who were a combination of Christopher Columbus, Dag Hammarskjöld, and James Bond. Plunging into unknown, and hostile territory dealing with not only their Russian rivals, but bandits, treacherous local rulers, and out and out holy wars. One of these explorer/ diplomats/ secret agents was Arthur Conolly, who dubbed this covert war
The Great Game, shortly before he was beheaded by the Emir of Bokhara and his corpse dumped into a pit.

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia: Covers the time from the 1700s to the early 1900s, and introduces you to people like the aforementioned Conolly, and men like Alexander Burnes, (pictured) who mapped vast areas of Central Asia, became the first Brit to make contact with Bokhara and live, all by the age of 26, only to be torn apart by an angry mob in Afghanistan before he was 40.

And when you think that there's no such thing as an incredible feat of cartography, there's the chapter on the Pundits. Indian secret agents who mapped out immense areas of Central Asia in secret, and in great danger from all around them.

The book reads like an adventure novel, with all sorts of action, exotic locations, and incredible courage, and the whole thing is true.

Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire: Shifts the focus from Britain vs Russia, to Britain vs Imperial Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to drive his empire east, and conquer everything from Eastern Europe to China. He had been blocked by Britain and Russia at every previous turn, but with World War One tearing Europe apart, he saw his chance to bring down his enemies. His idea, use his ally, the tottering Ottoman Emperor and Caliph of the Islamic faith to declare Holy War and get all the Muslim peoples of Central Asia to turn against the British and Russian Empires.

From this beginning comes a story of spies, terrorists, and politicians all performing incredible feats of courage, madness, and duplicity. We meet German agent Captain Niedermayer, who did the impossible to reach Afghanistan without being captured by the Russians and Brits, British Captain Teague-Jones who had to deal with not only the Germans, but Communist revolutionaries, and Enver Pasha, wannabe Turkish emperor who sought glory, but reaped destruction.

An engrossing read.

Setting The East Ablaze: Lenin's Dream of an Empire in Asia: Is the last book in the trilogy, though it was published second in 1984. It centers mostly on the Communist revolution in Russia spreading to Central Asia, and the British Agents who sought to stop it from reaching India in the years between 1917 to 1948.

It centers a lot on men like British spy Frederick Bailey, who was so good undercover, the Soviet secret service actually recruited him to hunt himself down. True story.

One of the most haunting characters is the "Mad Baron" Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (pictured). He had converted to Buddhism before World War 1 while on a exploration mission to Mongolia. When the Communists drove him out of his home country, he declared himself the de-facto dictator of Mongolia and engaged in a massive reign of terror across a large swath of Asia.

This cat was crazier than a bedbug, but almost impossible to kill.

Also Enver Pasha, last seen fleeing the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the last book, returns trying to reignite his dreams of empire, only to engage in even more treachery, and when that fails, to seek a form of violent redemption in a Wild Bunch style blaze of gunfire.

It's as engrossing a read as the other two books, and I recommend all three to anyone with an interest in what goes on in those dark nooks and crannies of history. Though I must warn you, it was written in the early 1980s, so it makes reference to the Soviet Union as if it was still in power. But just go beyond that to enjoy the story.


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  2. I hope no one's basing their academic thesis on my rantings. :O