There are novels that make you forget your prejudices. I tend to dislike the kind of historical novel that deals and trades in famous historical figures and in doing so produces something closer to a map of the stars (Look! There’s Lincoln! And there’s Mary Todd!) than a novel. Sabina Murray’s “Valiant Gentlemen’’ (her sixth work of fiction) is a novel that deals and trades in famous (and somewhat less famous) historical figures. And yet it almost immediately made me forget my prejudices against it.
It does so, in part, because of the historical figures on which it chooses to focus — namely, Roger Casement and Herbert Ward. Casement was a gay English poet and a pioneering human-rights activist of Irish descent who was a member of the British Colonial Service, knighted, and then stripped of honors and executed in 1916 for treason for his efforts to secure German help in the battle for Irish independence. Ward was an Englishman who met Casement in the Congo in the late 19th century and whose work as a sculptor, artist, and public speaker was influenced by Casement’s friendship.
I’m acting as though I knew all this coming into the novel; in fact, I knew none of it, and learning about their mutual and divergent historical paths (in the novel, Casement travels, usually alone, to the Congo, Brazil, South Africa, Portugal, America, England, Germany, France, and Ireland, while Ward marries, has children, and lives a much quieter, much more prosperous, much more traditional domestic life in England and France) is one of the pleasures of “Valiant Gentlemen.’’ The novel is told in present tense from the alternating points of view of Casement, Ward, and Ward’s wife, the Argentinian-American heiress Sarita Sanford. It begins in the Congo in 1896 and ends in Paris in 1919, so we see Belgian King Leopold’s vicious exploitation of the Congo, Ireland’s Easter Uprising, and World War I, the major turning point for the novel and the ties between the two best friends. By having us witness these big events through the limited scope of these somewhat unknown figures, she gives us a chance to see familiar historical moments anew, while learning about these figures for possibly the first time.
But Murray isn’t interested only in resurrecting the stories of under-examined historical figures. Rather, she uses their characters to interrogate what it means to write a novel set in late 19th- and early 20th-century Africa. To do so, of course, Murray wheels out Joseph Conrad (who in fact was friends with Casement), and his “Heart of Darkness’’ is remarked and punned upon throughout. But Conrad serves a larger, more self-critical purpose — Murray uses him to illuminate something about Casement’s own character and art and sense of purpose (“He, like Casement, has been drawn to the empty spaces on maps, and he, like Casement, knows he is performing their extinction.”) while also leading Casement to wonder whether he, or any western artist, can be trusted as a source of wisdom and insight when it comes to Africa. (“ ‘This place attracts the worst of Europe. It doesn’t create monsters,’ but as he says that, Casement becomes unsure.”) Which is not to say that the novel gives up on the idea of insight; on the contrary, the novel is skeptical of it, even as it produces it. Take this wrenching paragraph devoted to Mbatchi, one of Casement’s native “employees” in Africa: “Well, that’s settled, thinks Casement. He’ll take care of Mbatchi, make sure he is well fed and in good health, that he is always happy and feels safe, that he rests when he needs to and is protected from those that might harm him. And he’ll work and perform all the tasks required of him, one after the other, until his life is wasted or there’s nothing left to do.” A heartbreaking passage, written beautifully, from the point of view of a writer who cares deeply, all of which does not help the character being written about one bit. Which is precisely Murray’s point. That the novel can be so despairingly honest about a writer’s limitations while still be so entertaining says a lot about Murray’s considerable talent.
I fear that I’m making this novel sound grim and over determined. In fact, it’s often quite funny. For instance, this, on Casement’s poetry: “He would like to write about disappearing Comanche and the pride of Negroes, but his thoughts are degraded by the knowledge of Ward’s impending marriage.” And it’s also quite moving, especially on the subject of Ward’s and Casement’s relationship, which is often predicated on their differences: “He thinks of Ward’s drawings, all Africans, and his poems, all Irish history. Is that what makes them different, that Ward constructs himself out of his own personal history, while Casement’s personality demands a further reach?” And this is yet another way the novel made me forget my prejudices against it: It as much a novel about the joys and difficulties of friendship as it is about the larger historical events that have thrown these two particular friends together and that also threaten to tear them apart.
By Sabina Murray
Grove, 489 pp., $27Brock Clarke is the author of six books of fiction, most recently the novel “The Happiest People in the World.’’