CHINESE WHISPERS by Robert Sproat

CHINESE WHISPERS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This tour de force by the British author of Stunning the Punters (1986) pretends to be a collection of historical documents submitted in evidence of that wild-guy from the East, Temujin the Sheperd, a.k.a. Tamburlaine, a.k.a. Genghis Khan. An elaborate fabrication, Sproat's tale of 13th-century world conquest is more about the interpretation of events than the events themselves--a rather dry and academic idea that nevertheless occasions much wit. The legendary warrior, bent on domination of the known world, here comes to life obliquely, through the accumulation of various sources--letters, memoirs, folk tales, a song, a 20th-century lecture on military strategy, a selection from an actual history text, and the last testament of the Mongol leader himself. Also important to Sproat's fictional re-creation are excerpts from ""The Secret Official History of the Mongols,"" here translated at last from its Uighur script. Arranged chronologically, these records follow the Mongols westward through the Khwarizm and Samarkand, north into Georgia and the Russian Steppes, and westward again into Eastern Europe. Both the obviously apocryphal stories and the dispassionate chronicles attest to the superior military strength of the invading ""Tartars from Hell."" A young captain in the Army of Muhamad Ali Shah writes his high-placed uncle warning of the Mongolian ferocity that has been discounted by his immediate superiors; another version of the same battle, told 56 years later, suggests that Khan's attack was the proper response for the slaughter of his ambassadors. Accounts of Khan Subedei and Khan Jede, lords under Temujin, include the grisly details of their methods of torture. Though a Christian missionary falsely accuses them of cannibalism in his report home, he also testifies to their much-vaunted horsemanship. Venetian merchants confirm that the Mongols often sought allies, rather than engage in unnecessary warfare, and they were loyal and generous to their friends. If Genghis' deathbed monologue serves to humanize him, a lecture by Rommell, supposedly given in 1932, on the tactical genius of the Tartars suggests the heinous example their history provides. Sproat's ability to mimic the styles of medieval histories as well as 17th-century Russian folk tales is impressive, but his trite coda (""You can't believe all you read in the papers"") strikes a particularly inappropriate final note.

Pub Date: May 16th, 1988
Publisher: Faber & Faber