East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

At last, The Far Pavilions


The_Far_PavilionsMy goodness, it’s been 18 months!
In January 2015, I announced my intention of reading M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions1 as part of my reading list of adventure/historical novels set in India.
I got me a cheap, second-hand, printed-so-small-you’ll-burn-your-eyes hardback copy of the Italian translation2, and then all hell broke loose, my priorities changed, the book got buried at the bottom of my reading pile, and I picked it up again five days ago.
I’m going through it like a speeding train – basically because it’s a novel that reads like a breeze. It will be over by Wednesday.

Now, some personal background – I’m pretty sure my mother read The Far Pavilions when it came out in Italian in 1980. My aunt lent my mom her copy – I have this faint memory of the two of them talking about it. And both my mom and my aunt were into it because of the romantic element – about which, more later.

So, what’s the deal with The Far Pavilions?
The novel could be described as a rehash of Kipling’s Kim, with an added romantic element, and an update to fit more modern sensibilities.
British boy is raised as a native in post-Mutiny India, discovers his heritage, becomes an officer in the Guides Corp. Battle, intrigue, and romance ensue.
Nice and smooth.


Very nice and smooth, actually.
And I must confess I had my misgivings – maybe because I had vague memories of the HBO miniseries, I was wary of the book, half-expecting it to drift into bodice-ripper territory.
You know, girl’s bookschick-lit.

But then, I kept telling myself, neither my mom nor my aunt were the bodice-ripper/chick lit kind.
Because romance is one thing, bodice-ripping is quite another – and do not we genre fiction lovers all enjoy the “wild romances” of adventure and exoticism?

far-pavilionsSo, my general impression is that the copy about the book somewhat exaggerated the romantic element. And I find it interesting a comparison between the first edition cover above and the reprint cover here on the right. The background is pretty obviously the same, but the tiny, almost lost human figures have been replaced with a guy without a shirt.
The earlier cover stresses the vast landscapes, the sense of awe and mystery, the exoticism, the sense of insignificance of the individual.
The second sort of sneaks in a long-haired guy (is he supposed to be a British officer?) without a shirt.

Oh, and it’s there, mind you, the romantic element – beautiful women, impossible love, the works. But it amounts to a pretty reasonable percentage of the story – that, for the most part, is a well-researched, nicely written, finely-balanced, tightly focused historical adventure.
With a stress on adventure.

350_mmkayeWhat I find most captivating is the description of colonial India – a subject M.M. Kaye knew well, as she was born in Simla in 19083. Her husband was an officer in the Guides Corps.
The depiction of military life and court life are pretty vivid, and there’s a balanced, affectionate view of the country, like only someone with first-hand experience, I guess, could have written.
Indeed, the love story takes center stage in the second half – but there’s so much intrigue, sneaky killings, politics, and whatnot, that my fears about sinking into an ultra-sweet jam of “romance” have turned out to be unfounded.

The sheer quality of the book – that is intended as good, solid entertainment, plain and simple – also caused me to think about the change in public tastes and public perception of these books.
I wonder how modern readers would react at this novel. Would they scream at the sin of telling instead of showing that gives some passages their “oral history” sort of tone? Would they scream at political incorrectness because the Brits are not the bad guys? Would they lament the lack of “action” in the romance department?
Indeed, quite a chunk of the detail I found so great were cut in later translations to avoid the dreaded crime of “infodump” – people out there are crazy.

I don’t know.
I simply think I’m finally reading a good solid yarn, which is a fine way to pass two hours in the evening after a very stressful day, and I think anyone with an interest in adventure, historical novels, India and the East, might have quite fun checking this out.

But I’m open to diverging opinions – as open as the comments below are! Let’s hear your say… did you read this one? Impressions?

ADDENDUM: the author’s site turned out to be impossible to reach, but I have found this nice fansite about the book. Well worth a look.

  1. yes, this is a commercial link – feel free to ignore it. 
  2. but I’m lucky, because this is the first Italian translation, from 1980, and not the new one, that apparently cuts about 150 pages of historical detail. 
  3. which also means the novel was published when she was seventy years old. It had supposedly taken fifteen years to write. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “At last, The Far Pavilions

  1. I had the great luck of finding and reading this gem while living in India. I’ll never know why my father bought it, as it’s not his usual genre though he did have a lively interest in history. Thanks for posting, you’ve just reminded me that this book is indeed one of the seeds that went into Swords of the Four Winds. 🙂


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