Beau Geste (Algeria)

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Beau_Geste_novelby Percival Christopher Wren

I’m glad this adventure novel is still around. Not because I subscribe to its old-fashioned arrogance and casual racism, but because I feel it’s important to know how societies thought, felt, and acted in former times. I’m not in favor of banning books–I’m in favor of reading them to deeply understand history.

And there is plenty here to offend just about everyone. In the course of the 3 upper-class Geste boys running away from their aunt’s manor house and joining the French Foreign Legion, we encounter nigs, niggers, Injuns, Arab squaws, dagos, aborigines of the Congo, and a Jewish Cockney pawnbroker drawn to stereotype and referred to sarcastically as a Child of Israel or simply, “the Child”.

Algeria mapAlthough Beau Geste is a book of its time, the author does seem aware of the atrocities committed by King Leopold of Belgium’s men in the Congo, and makes it clear he doesn’t approve. This attitude probably has something to do with the white man’s perceived responsibility or how gentlemen and Christians should act rather than any genuine sense of the offensiveness of colonialism, but nonetheless, it’s a start.

If you can get beyond all that, this is a very enjoyable read. Talk about guilty pleasures.

The Plot

Sahara desertThe orphaned Geste brothers–twins Michael, also known as “Beau” and Digby plus younger brother John–have been taken in by their Aunt Patricia and raised at Brandon Abbas. One night the teens and their cousins Isabel, Claudia, and the detested Ambrose are sitting around with Aunt and the Chaplain when they start passing around the Blue Water, a sapphire worth about 30,000 pounds.

Large sapphireThe lights go out, and when they go back on, the sapphire is missing. (Really, where is Hercules Poirot when you need him?!) Aunt refuses to call in the police. Beau Geste, in a breathtakingly stupid quixotic gesture, runs away from the house, so that suspicion won’t fall on the others. He is followed in quick order, first by Digby, and then by John.

Mean and philandering Uncle Hector is going to have 10,000 fits when he finds out, and probably kill someone.

John suspects his brothers have run off to join the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, and does the same. On the boat from Marseilles to Fort St. Therese in Oran, he meets two Americans–former Texas Rangers called Hank and Buddy. (Strangely, he never refers to them as Yanks.) He does a great mockup of their accents.

Our Lady of Africa basilica in AlgiersBuddy, a tiny man with the heart of a lion, wins all the new Legionnaires’ everlasting affection when he threatens to beat the hell out of the cook for not feeding them. The man is running a scam where he tells new Legionnaires (called bleus) that the French Government has made no provision for their meals until Algeria (although it has) and charges them to provide food, even though it should be free. Some of the men are flat broke and have nothing to eat for 2 days.

But Buddy isn’t having it. He makes the cook feed them all, every meal. Finally he challenges the sour and misogynist Frenchman to a fight where he pounds the man into the ground, telling him if he ever does that to new recruits again, well…you get the idea.

The Inexplicable

A camel, said Digby, is the only wealth which carries itself

I would have liked this edition of the book to come with a foreword, afterword, and footnotes. Alas, it had none of those. I wanted to know when the book was first published, and to have a few things explained. (Wikipedia says the novel was published in 1924–the German Legionnaires in the novel are quite villainous–and describes pretty accurately the French Foreign Legion pre-1914, which led some people to speculate that the author had served.)

The fierce desert raiders known as Touraeg, the men wearing blue veils, were traditional enemies of the Legion
The fierce desert raiders known as Touraeg, the men wearing blue veils, were traditional enemies of the Legion

One of the unexplained and strange to modern readers details is where John says the Legionnaires aren’t issued socks, because they don’t wear them. In the desert, where your feet are all hot and sweaty and I know they wore boots…why not?

I would have liked a map of French territory–they kept talking about pushing south to Sudan, and how they wanted to take Morocco, which I think at that time may have been Spanish.

I would have liked to know a bit of the history behind the various tribes portrayed in the book, some of which were named (Tourags), some of which were simply called “blacks”, some groups called “Arabs” or “Musslemen” (Muslims)…etc.

The Rating: Five Desert Stars on a Cold, Clear Night.

modern AlgeriaA very well-written and crafted story, if flawed in some of its attitudes. As enjoyable a historical piece as Huckleberry Finn, which is often banned for the same reasons.

PS–the phrase “le beau geste” in French means the beautiful gesture, an act of quixotic heroism for which Michael surely qualifies, as you will find out.