The times are a-changing for superheroes. Weary, doubtful and even hated for their supernatural aptitude of putting the world’s needs before theirs, our 21st-century champions are in the middle of a mid-life crisis that is spurning countless books and Hollywood box-office hits. Now the rave is all about bringing them back into the Xanax realm of anguished souls they were supposed to look after.
And that is why Captain Corcoran and his 19th-century confidence in his ability to wow the crowds —especially the ladies—is exactly the kind of hero we want to read about.
Freshly imported from dusty French shelves by British translator Sam Miller, the 150-year-old adventures of the aforementioned gentleman and his “pet” tiger, the ferocious Louison, whose claws are deadlier than those of Chinese imperial concubines, are a needed read in this era of Freudian self-doubt and broken idols.
In a glorious opening chapter, Brittany-born Corcoran convinces a group of bearded French scientists to trust him with the mission of finding a precious manuscript—whose importance is such in the novel that it changes names multiples times. His archetypal quest takes him to 19th-century India, where a colorful line-up of characters awaits him, in a country where, interestingly enough, French author Alfred Assollant himself never set foot.
There is Sita, the stunning, exotic princess who smiles and weeps and gets stolen away like a sack of potatoes circa the Irish Great Famine. There is Holkar, a mad king who goes rhino-hunting while enemies are knocking at his doors with the deadly determination of a tax collector. There is the infamous Rao, a cunning politician with the complexity of an angry emoji who drools all over the royal seat.
And of course there is Corcoran, “the Breton”, a poorly-educated sailor who bends iron bars with his bare hands, a hero so fabulous that it seems he could pop out of the pages and headbutt you should you dare close the book before the end of his adventures.
As Corcoran says, “The word impossible doesn’t exist in French.” (To those of you who wonder, yes it does.)
As you might well have guessed by now, one should not expect layered dialogues and textured characters; in Corcoran’s tale, men load their weapons and animals bare their teeth while women pray. “My hair is entangled like the sentences of a Balzac novel”, says one the characters, not, however, that there is anything Balzacian in Assollant’s prose. “Move aside or I will kill you!,” Corcoran roars, while Sita marvels at “his eyes more beautiful than the flower of the blue lotus” and slained enemies’ brains explode in the background like “the corks of two bottles of champagne”. One can trust the French to make morbidity chic.
Nor is consistency this writer’s forte: a soldier placed in detention for a month makes a magic comeback without chains a few days and pages later; a staircase leads downwards, then upwards, during the same battle. There are a handful of historical and cultural mistakes. But as Corcoran says, “The word impossible doesn’t exist in French.” (To those of you who wonder, yes it does.)
Assollant also never misses an opportunity to portray India as a land of snakes, elephants and rhinos. As a writer based in Delhi, this could tremendously annoy me, but weirdly enough, it does not. Let India be fabulous over the course of a book.
However it is a shame the action eventually loses pace, unfolding unconvincingly on the vague background of the 1857 Sepoy mutiny. Like an athlete too eager to snatch the gold, the novel starts with a big bang and ferocious action, then huffs and puffs to keep the reader’s attention, crossing the finish line with a predictable ending, almost downgrading itself into cheap teen lit.
The backstory of the book is worth mentioning. French writer Alfred Assollant first published his novel in 1867. Translated into several languages, it won the hearts of such prestigious thinkers as Antonio Gramsci and Jean-Paul Sartre, who read it a hundred times, before the book sank into a century-old beauty sleep.
It took the enthusiasm of the Greek stepfather of translator Sam Miller’s wife to bring it back to life. Miller enjoyed the book so much he decided to revive it into his mother tongue, which had never been done before, probably because Assollant never missed an opportunity to poke fun at the “red-haired barbarians” living across the Channel. It is quite admirable to see an English translator who spent most of his life in India take up the task of translating the prose of a French writer who hated the Brits and never set foot in the land of the Maharajas. In a way, this is literary self-flagellation in its quirkiest form. But I am glad he did it, as the book has the merit of allowing Indian contemporary readers to discover a tale woven in their very backyard by a writer sitting miles and centuries away.
The book proves to be a rewarding companion, a naughty, witty child who knows his mischief will be forgiven,
Assollant’s France was a nation that was undergoing drastic political changes, switching from Republic to Empire and Republic again over the course of only a few years. After unsuccessful ventures into politics, Assollant died in 1886 in a paupers’ hospital in Paris, preceded to his grave by wife, son and daughter. His simple tale showcasing a super Frenchman can be regarded as literary comfort food for a man and country wounded in their confidence. Of course this is not Dumas’s Count of Monte Christo. Corcoran’s adventures are a 230-page hyperbole of a book, a blunt exercise of subtlety sacrificed on the altar of a good story. It might irritate many, and bore the rest. After all, Assollant sounds like insolent. Coincidence?
For those willing to put aside its many flaws, his book proves to be a rewarding companion, a naughty, witty child who knows his mischief will be forgiven, with a pat on the hand and a lingering smile on the face—he is just too entertaining to be punished.