Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household ★★★★½
Edition: Folio Society (2013), Hardcover, 172 pages.
Original publication date: 1939
From the FS site: “Rogue Male opens, literally, with a cliffhanger. The narrator has just been thrown off the edge of a precipice and is clinging on by the fingertips. He survives the fall and struggles through a muddy stream before climbing a tree, there to hide from the uniformed figures searching below. It transpires that he has just tried to assassinate the leader of an unnamed country with a hunting rifle. There follows a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase across Europe as the hero struggles to evade the authorities and carry out his mission – ‘to do justice where no other hand could reach.’”
When we have that first vision of the unnamed narrator, he’s been submitted to interrogation under brutal torture (the fingertips in question have had the nails removed) and conveniently left for dead. The novel is in the form of a memoir, which he writes while in hiding to try to make sense of events and also as a way to avoid giving way to insanity. Well he might make that effort too, because his solution to staying away from his pursuers is to literally burrow himself underground somewhere in Dorset, where he spends weeks and months in a hole in the ground not much larger than the size of a coffin; living off tins of food in his own filth and stench and unable to go above ground or show himself anywhere, as the wanted man he’s become. The narrative is completely gripping, and though we never find out the narrator’s identity, nor that of the leader he may or may not have intended to assassinate, we are privy to his musings as he takes us through the course of events which has led him to his present situation, and his reflections on what his true motivations might have been.
Other than a ripping good yarn, one thing that greatly appealed to me about this short novel was that it allowed me to completely put aside my own sense of morality and prejudices and enter into the mind of a man with almost complete opposite background, world experience and choice pastimes. Here is a very wealthy man from an ancient aristocratic English family, educated in the best ‘public’ schools and then at an Oxbridge college, whose main activity is traveling the world to track and kill ‘big game’—incidentally, according to wikipedia, the term ‘Big Game’ is historically associated with the hunting of Africa’s Big Five game; lions, African elephants, Cape Buffaloes, leopards and rhinos—iin other words, animals now on the verge of extinction. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that as an animal lover who eats meat infrequently at best, I cannot abide the idea of hunting as a leisure activity. But Household’s writing grabbed hold of me from the beginning, and I was immediately concerned with this man staying alive and living to tell his tale. And when his true motivations came to the fore, was even be able to sympathize with him. Also didn’t hurt that according to some, the leader he had in his sights, finger on the trigger was no other than Hitler, “though the anonymous narrator does not consider himself an assassin but ‘a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible.’”
Excellent and strongly recommended.
The Folio edition, needless to say, is simply gorgeous. The illustrations throughout always cross over the full spread, sometimes with the text wrapping around the element on the page facing the main picture, a great visual device for a book about a man on the run.