Characters from the Past: Historic figures in fiction and those left out (Column: Bookends)

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“The whole Earth is the sepulchre of famous men..” observed ancient Greek statesman Pericles in a memorial ceremony, noting that their story doesn’t only survive on their gravestones, but “lives on far away…” Nobody knows this better than the writers who focus on or otherwise bring in historical personages into their works, making them feel real than renowned but remote figures from the past.

Historical fiction, now considered a genre in novels, does predate prose. If we forgo the epics of the great ancient civilizations from the Mediterranean world to Asia as being considerably mythologized accounts of historical figures, then a pioneer was Italian poet Dante Alighieri, with his immortal masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy” (1320), in which he meets all sorts of historical figures in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

Then there is William Shakespeare, whose most famous plays deal with ancient Roman and Greek figures – Pericles, Julius Caesar, et al – and monarchs – Richards II and III, Henry V, Macbeth, and so on.

In prose, it was Sir Walter Scott, who not only focussed on figures from Scottish history but also the age of the Crusades, notably Richard I the “Lion-Heart” and Saladin in “The Talisman” (1825) – lesser known than his “Ivanhoe” (1820). Taking it further was Alexandre Dumas pere, with fascinating portrayals of 17th century French kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV, the “Sun King” as well as Cardinal Richelieu in his “Three Musketeers” cycle.

The trend then caught on and historical characters, ranging from Roman emperors to explorers, warriors to Wild West gunslingers and desperadoes, gangsters to great conquerors, philosophers to painters and more began figuring in fictionalised biographies, or more speculative portrayals.

But some got more prominence, at least as far as English novels (or works translated into English) go. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Vlad Dracul the Impaler, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Stalin, and Shakespeare himself are encountered quite frequently.

Then there are authors specialised in bringing a whole epoch to life.

George MacDonald Fraser, in his splendid iconoclastic and irreverent Flashman series, offers some incisive but jaundiced portrayals of a great swathe of 19th century’s movers and shakers – Queen Victoria, Otto von Bismarck, Rani Lakshmibai, Lincoln, Florence Nightingale among others. Philip Kerr did the same for the Nazis in his Bernie Gunther series.

But, while a whole raft of historical personages can be found – sometimes in the most unexpected places and ways, there are also those who have not got their due in their portrayals or have been ignored so far.

Let’s take some figures from around the world and across the spectrum of human endeavour, and why they should be so commemorated.

We can begin with Finnish soldier and statesman Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951), revered among his people for establishing his country’s independence in wake of the Russian Revolution, defending it against Soviet subversion and aggression, guiding it during World War II, when it was with the Axis powers – but only as per its own conditions- and then helping it negotiate a fairly honourable peace that didn’t see it lose too much. It is however his earlier career that is remarkable.

After a rather turbulent youth, Mannerheim joined the Imperial Russian Army in 1888 as a subaltern, despite an incident in cadet school that could have ended his career right then. The high point was his three-year espionage mission across inner Asia – China and Tibet (1906-09) – while disguised as an ethnographer, during which he also went to Lhasa to meet the then Dalai Lama and reportedly presented him a pistol. The episode can be found in his biography, but imagine what a story it will make.

Then there is his near counterpart, Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto (1884-1943). Responsible for the strategic development of the Imperial Japanese Navy and planning the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Midway, though conscious of the Western powers’ strength and arguing against armed confrontation against them, once the decision was taken, he was honour-bound to do his best.

Tracked and killed by Americans in 1943 as revenge for Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto is not entirely absent from fiction, though two of his four appearances only refer to his last hours of life – in Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” (1999) and James Douglas’ “The Samurai Inheritance” (2014).

The other two – Douglas Niles’ “MacArthur’s War: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan” (2007) and Robert Conroy’s “Rising Sun” (2011) are alternative history in which he survives beyond 1943 and guides his country’s destiny subsequently.

But how about a novel about his real life and choices?

There are more prominent historical figures who could do offer a fairly proficient novelist a good challenge – longtime Soviet Foreign Minister (1957-85) Andrei Gromyko, India’s guiding leader Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslav partisan leader and statesman Josip Broz ‘Tito’, exotic but accomplished author Yul Brynner, the unlikely rock’n’roll champion Billy Haley or say, irrepressible scientist Richard Feynman.

And then, if feminists cite a bias, then there is scientist Lise Meitner and political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose accomplishments are equalled by the way they were let down by men.

Any one keen?

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])



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