Friday, November 15, 2013

The Tragedy of the Korosko by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A terrorism thriller in Victorian Egypt
The Korosko is a small steamer traveling up the Nile with a cargo of European and American tourists. It is 1895. Egypt is occupied by the British, but the authority of the Empire only effectively extends to the green, populated strip along the banks of the great river. In the desert beyond roam the unconquered Dervishes, nomadic tribes of north-African Arabs. The travelers, having heard rumors of these savage marauders, have some reservations about venturing too far from the water’s edge, but ultimately they trust that the overarching umbrella of the British Empire will keep them safe and secure. On a scenic outing to the rock of Abousir, their worst fears are realized as they are taken captive by a troop of Dervish warriors. The captors inform the prisoners that they will be taken to Khartoum, where they will either be released for ransom or sold into slavery.

The Tragedy of the Korosko, a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was published in 1898. Given that it was written over a century ago, one mustn’t expect a great deal of political correctness, but Conan Doyle’s depiction of the Dervishes is relatively enlightened for its time. Not so surprisingly, he takes a very pro-British view toward Egyptian political affairs, essentially stressing the point that Egypt would be better off with a larger British military presence. But to his credit he does portray the Arab and African characters as human beings rather than mere racial stereotypes. As the villains of the story, most of the Muslim characters are depicted with some degree of religious fanaticism, but no more than what we often see in Hollywood movies, even to this day. On the other hand, Conan Doyle makes some attempt to explain the motivations behind the actions of the Muslims, and even expresses admiration for their history, culture, and devotion to their faith. There is one unfortunate passage where the Dervishes display a foolish degree of gullibility, but thankfully it is a brief incident and not particularly integral to the story as a whole.

The ordeal of the Korosko’s passengers has all the excitement and suspense of a modern Hollywood action drama, yet the tone of the narrative is mostly realistic, in the sense that the characters behave in a realistic manner, albeit conforming to 19th-century mores and codes of conduct. Conan Doyle gives us moments of heroism, but doesn’t stoop to sensationalistic superheroics. Given the culture clash between the captors and captives, there naturally develops an opposition between Christianity and Islam. This sets up a test of faith for the prisoners. For that reason, I imagine the book would be especially appealing to readers of a Christian persuasion for its inspirational content. As one would expect from the rational, scientific mind of Conan Doyle, however, he’s not extremely preachy about it, and readers more secularly inclined can certainly enjoy the tale solely on its merits as a thriller.

The Tragedy of the Korosko is essentially a Victorian tale of Islamic terrorism. As in any story of terrorism, there is a temptation to depict one ethnic or religious group as the good guys and the opposing side as the bad guys, but Conan Doyle does a fair job of resisting this temptation and manages to paint a few shades of gray between the black and white. Today’s readers should approach this novel as an adventure story and appreciate it as such. Fans of Conan Doyle or other classic writers of the late 19th- and early 20th- centuries will enjoy this exciting and suspenseful thriller.

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