I took myself off coffee for the day so forgive me if this is a bit grouchy, but I did not enjoy this book. Nope, not at all. I get that it was outrageous in its time (1888), that as a historical document it has merit, that the bare bones of it are a sort of parable, but you know me–give me clear, beautiful sentences or I’ll give you crap.
The Man Who Would be King is narrated by a British journalist in India who gets in a pretty good intro (page 1: I have been a fellow to a beggar again and again under circumstances which prevented either of us finding out whether the other was worthy…) before fading off the page. He is a vessel for the actual story, an excuse for the two travelers he meets to relay their experiences. He plays only the smallest part in the actual unfolding of events. He thwarts the blackmailing efforts of the two travelers, who return at a later date to say that they’ve exhausted the possibilities of India and have decided to set out to become kings in the North. The journalist helps them and they set off, finagling their way into becoming Kings of the Kafirs in Afghanistan. They are highly successful, owing in no small part to their being Freemasons, and they are considered gods. When one of them decides to take a wife (apparently the Kafiri women are pretty hot, and despite not being European, are white), though, all hell breaks loose–she is afraid to marry a god and when she bites him to escape, he bleeds and everyone realizes that these two interlopers are not gods at all. One falls to his death from a rope bridge the Kafirs hack loose, the other is crucified for a day–when he survives the Kafirs declare it a miracle and he returns, a broken man, to the reporter to tell his tale, only to die of heat stroke soon after.
I have to admit that, in summary, this sounds kind of exciting. In the reading of it, though, I found it confusing and decidedly unexciting. The whole book was expository–the reader is removed from the action, hearing about it all second hand, after the fact. The tone of the narrative also makes it impossible to like any of the characters–it isn’t kind to any of them. I will venture to say it is even a little smarmy. I wasn’t rooting for anyone–not the journalist, not the adventurers, not even the Kafirs.
p.s. If you are wondering why I keep calling this a book when you’ve always thought of it as a short story, it’s because The Man Who Would be King is out on Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series, so it is bound all by itself in a lovely bright blue package. The design was my favorite part of this reading experience.