Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Racism in the Sins of Séverac Bablon?

"Jews control all the money."

When did you first hear that little chestnut? I know I didn't learn of it from my day-to-day life; I first saw that phrase some time after I began using the internet in 1998...probably on the same day I learned what "anti-semitism" is.

Dear internet: thank you.

Seriously, it is better for you to know the messed-up things people think so you're better equipped to guard yourself against it. On the internet, everything is hyperbole* but in the real world someone who wants to convince you that, say, the Jews control the wealth of the world, would use guarded, subtle language (assuming they aim to be persuasive) to sway your thinking.

The internet has taught me so much about the terrible things people believe that I've become sensitive to phrases loaded with bias and ignorance. One of my personal pet peeves is our tendency to paint groups of people with the same brush. I believe in the uniqueness of individuals and hate to think of the characteristics of "groups;" it's dehumanizing. For instance, as someone deeply involved in the world of comics, it irks me to find references to comic book fans as a group (or "geek culture"); whether those references are meant as an insult or a compliment, "we" don't like the same things and the things we do like we do to varying degrees. Nice cuticles!

So. I've been reading Sax Rohmer's Sins of Séverac Bablon, one of his earliest novels, originally serialized in 1912. I'm something of a Rohmer apologist when it comes to matters of race because I have a theory that, in spite of how you feel about the popular conception of Fu Manchu, Rohmer's stories were a little more clever about race than you'd assume**. However, I had recently finished his book Fire-Tongue which was...needlessly racist***. So, Séverac Bablon deals with Jews; I was prepared for something pretty painful, especially when it turns out Séverac is a "gentleman thief" who preys upon wealthy Jews. Ah, this is where years of preparation for such racism pays off, right?

Having broken the ice, Sheard found his enforced task not altogether distasteful. It seemed wrong to him, unjust, and in strict disaccordance with the views of the Gleaner, that these thousands should be locked up for one man's pleasure, while starvation levied its toll upon the many. Moreover, he nurtured a temperamental distaste for the whole Semitic race -- a Western resentment of that insidious Eastern power.

After reading that paragraph, I was about ready to be done with the book, but I kept going. Moving forward, it became much more positive: not all of the wealthy Jews in the story are bad people, it's just a matter of how the story defines a "bad" wealthy Jew:

"Why do you make a victim of me?" he gasped. "Antony Elschild is--"

"Mr. Antony Elschild is a member of one of the greatest Jewish families in Europe, you would say? And his interests are wholly British? He has recognised that, Baron. I have his cheque for fifty thousand pounds!"

We gradually learn Bablon is himself Jewish and the (self-proclaimed) heir to the lineage of Israel's kings; as such, he's able to summon up allies at a moment's notice, which...come to think of it, that's not unlike some of the "Elders of Zion" conspiracy theories, is it?

"Gott im Himmel!" he said hoarsely. "Who are you? Why do you persecute those who are Jewish?"

"You are found guilty, Israel Hagar," resumed the merciless voice, "of dragging through the mire of greed -- through the sloughs of lust of gold -- a name once honoured among nations. It is such as you that have earned for the Jewish people a repute it ill deserves. Save for such as Mr. Antony Elschild, you and your like must have blotted out for ever all that is glorious in the Jewish name. Despite all, you have succeeded in staining it -- and darkly. I have a mission. It is to erase that stain. Therefore, when the list appears of those who wish to preserve intact the British Empire, your name shall figure amongst the rest!"

Bablon doesn't resort to physical violence, instead using clever extortion/blackmail plots to force the wealthy Jews into donating their money either to the poor or to fund England in World War I. Either way, this causes the supposedly patriotic/benevolent money masters to be viewed as solid citizens, thus repairing the reputation of Jewish people, as Bablon hoped.

I'm willing to cut Rohmer a lot of slack for this book because his Jews aren't all alike; some are British patriots, some are not; some use their wealth to help others, some are hoarders. Some of the hoarders aren't even that bad, they simply feel entitled to their money in a rather Libertarian way.

Part of what fascinates me about Séverac Bablon is how similar yet different he is from other leading characters in Rohmer's novels. By which I mean, Rohmer's heroes aren't normally Jewish. However, Rohmer was fascinated by all things "Eastern."

"The Jews are an Eastern people," replied Haredale. "That is the fact which is generally overlooked. They are, excepting one, the most remarkable people in the modern world."

After reading that line, I understood Rohmer's intentions much better. Rohmer's fascination with Séverac as a hero was much like that of Bimbashi Baruk (Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt), Moris Klaw (the Dream Detective) or Karamaneh (Fu Manchu). Rohmer especially loved Egyptian protagonists, which probably rank second next to Englishmen as the most common heroes of Rohmer's fiction. Séverac Bablon is, essentially, written like one of Rohmer's Egyptians. He even leads an entourage of Arab underlings at one point...I'm still not clear whether those were his Jewish followers in disguise or actual Arabs paying him homage (Bablon dons a lot of disguises in the course of the story).

At its heart, Séverac Bablon is much like E.W. Hornung's Raffles, with a few differences. In fact, the ways in which Bablon differs from Raffles point to what I believe are the weaknesses of Rohmer's story and the strengths of Hornung's:

  1. A.J. Raffles has his friend Bunny Manders, a normal man introduced to a world of crime; Séverac Bablon has his friend Tom Sheard, a normal man introduced to a world of crime.
  2. Raffles' adventures are narrated first-person by Bunny Manders; Bablon's adventures are narrated third-person.
  3. Raffles has some minor allies, but must usually rely upon himself & Bunny; Bablon claims eight millions subjects and is never at a loss for assistance.
  4. By following Bunny & Raffles through their schemes, we understand the dangers involved and are thrilled when Raffles' carefully-laid robberies go awry; we do not follow Bablon as he commits his crimes, instead viewing his activities through the perspective of his victims, who always fail to upset his carefully-laid plans.

The Sins of Séverac Bablon is not Raffles is what I'm trying to say, I think.

It's interesting how not knowing what Bablon's plans are make his activities less involving to read about. After the third or fourth time Bablon outwits the aristrocrats, police and private detectives you begin to see the patterns in how the victims-to-be prepare for Bablon's capture, only to fail each time and blunder into Bablon's trap. This was probably fine when the novel was first serialized, but taken as a whole, you could stop reading the Sins of Séverac Bablon halfway through and be assured you missed nothing extraordinary in the other half. Once Bablon's identity and purpose have been cleanly established, he becomes an unstoppable yet remote protagonist, usually absent from the narrative until it's time for him to outfox his enemies. I do wish the footing between Bablon and his foes were a touch more even. Again, like Raffles.

Ultimately, the Sins of Séverac Bablon wasn't as troubling as I feared early in the book; it's not altogether great either, but nowadays only a Sax Rohmer enthusiast would crack this one open; if you are a fellow enthusiast, you may find it a nice change of pace from the quasi-supernatural tales Rohmer usually wrote. It's not up there with Fu Manchu, Sumuru or Dope, mind you.

*= Including this.

**= I might have to write up my full essay on this one, but it would require a lot of preparation.

***= "If a man of colour paid his heathen attentions to my daughter--" Yeah, terrific. The "man of colour" in question does turn out to be the villain of the piece, but the first clue that's he's a suspicious character is when he makes respectful overtures to a white woman? Get off my plane!

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