Former Ambassador, Human Rights Activist
I confess that when I saw that Sikunder Burnes was being reviewed by the ultra conservative romanticist Allan Massie, in the staunchly British unionist Scotsman, I was braced for a broadside. But overall I think the review is both interesting and reasonably fair, making some intellectual points worthy of contention. A review that states “This is a fascinating book”, and praises my research and mastery of the facts, is not a bad review, even if it outlines ways Massie thinks it could have been better.
But the criticism that there is too much detail, and the narrative line is blurred, is interesting because it is something of which I was highly conscious in writing, and discussed as an issue. Though regular readers of this blog, who followed the struggle to cut out 80,000 words from the book, will recognise the criticism that I threw in everything I knew as completely misguided.
Real life is very messy. Individuals sometimes do things that appear completely out of character, or contrary to all their usual motives and inclinations on a subject, and sometimes a couple of centuries later we can’t understand why they did that. And not just individuals – social trends and movements will always throw up inconvenient counter-examples that buck the trend.
Allan Massie is a historical novelist, and a fine one. It is unsurprising he likes his historical characters to move consistently, clearly and at a good reading pace along neatly plotted narratives. But real life is not like that, and thus real history should not be. History cannot elide, or it is not history. Real life is messy, and real biography is obliged partly to reflect that.
To give just one example from Sikunder Burnes, Henry Pottinger was an extremely irascible, indeed bellicose, British imperialist who had no time for Burnes’ interest in local cultures and institutions and desire to give responsibility to Indians. He was gung-ho to annex Mandvi and to attack Sind from an early stage, and was a vicious driving force behind the First Opium War. Yet in 1839 he suddenly had a crisis of conscience over the annexation of Karachi, and stood firmly against the Governor-General on the ground of two inconvenient facts. Firstly it was untrue that Karachi fort had fired on a British warship, and secondly that it was true that the Amirs of Sind had a written contract releasing them from a tribute obligation to Shuja.
This noble behaviour of Pottinger was completely out of character with a career of trampling local rights, which had never shirked from imperial dissembling or brutality. The conflict between Burnes and Pottinger over how Indians should be treated is an important theme of the book. Pottinger’s behaviour here undermines that powerful theme. I did not have to include it. I could have just omitted these letters, and there are not three people in the entire world who would be equipped to notice. It would have made for a shorter book and a clearer, more dramatic narrative. But it would not be intellectually honest, which is my main driver. Plus I have this rather illogical compulsion to be fair to people, even if they are long dead. Indeed a conviction that Alexander Burnes has been treated very unfairly by history is my major motive for writing the book.
I discussed this exact question over drinks in Delhi with the brilliant William Dalrymple. His general advice was that readability is essential, and that small counter-facts are always omitted from any general narrative; which is true. I do accept that Massie has a point – the specific Pottinger case is one of scores of examples, and perhaps I leaned too far towards completeness and had insufficient pity on my readers. William Dalrymple’s books are superbly written with a quality of description I do not even seek to match, and do move along very linear narratives. I do not claim to be in the same league as a storyteller, but I rest in the hope that others will find the muddle of life as endlessly fascinating as I do.
I confess to checking how online sales are going, and was happy to see that the only historical biography on Amazon outselling Sikunder Burnes is The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s life of Alexander von Humboldt. Purely by chance von Humboldt turns up in Sikunder Burnes playing a brief but key role, helping to pluck the convict soldier Jan Prosper Witkiewicz from obscurity in Orenburg.
Finally, I should address the fact that Sikunder Burnes appears to have completely disappeared. Their appear to be no physical copies available anywhere that I have been able to determine. Amazon are selling extremely well, but don’t actually have any. I have received literally dozens of reports of people not being able to get it in bookshops, and not one report of anyone actually seeing it on a bookshop shelf.
I wish I could give you a proper explanation, but obviously with the book already reviewed by the Mail, the Sun and the Scotsman, its lack of sales visibility is a major blow to me. I think part of the explanation is that Birlinn, who have produced an extremely handsome volume of which I am very proud, have just been taken aback by the high level of demand. They promise me there will be stock widely available imminently.
The second and much larger problem is that very few bookshops appear to have ordered the book in for their shelves. For example three different readers of this blog have reported ordering it at the same Waterstones Birmingham store, but that Waterstones has not ordered it for stock. I have been told that Foyles, who sold many dozens of my Murder in Samarkand, have not ordered in to stock. Yet the prominent tables of Waterstones and Foyles are stacked high with books which Sikunder Burnes is massively outselling online, even though listed as currently unavailable. I think part of the reason for this is the problems of an excellent but independent publisher in this corporate world, and partly that it is conceived as a Scottish interest book (the situation is rather better in Scottish bookshops).
Anybody with the time and inclination would do me a huge favour by attempting to persuade your local bookshop, chain or independent, that they should have it on their shelves. I do not think there are many books given a prominent review by the Daily Mail which are never stocked. And Murder in Samarkand was a bestseller. I need somehow to get this book visible.
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