Flash in the Pan 

Perhaps no group exercises so much ire over the Iraq War as Great Britain's senior writers. Nobel laureate Harold Pinter pens caustic poetry about U.S. policies, John LeCarre's latest spy thriller devolves into an anti-American diatribe and inglorious global politics provide a little context to George McDonald Fraser's hilarious historical novel, Flashman on the March.

Since 1969, Fraser's "Flashman" series has been arguably the funniest -- and most educational -- series of novels being published. Each book presents the same, irresistible literary conceit: In his old age, one of England's most decorated Victorian heroes confesses in his memoirs that he's always been a cowardly, lecherous opportunist, and his celebrated triumphs were always dumb luck. The epitome of a bigoted, sexist, colonial bully, Flashman narrates his exploits in a delightfully nasty voice that uses "roger" as a verb and commands a veritable lexicon of obsolete ethnic slurs.

Flashman invariably finds himself on the scene of history's most notorious massacres and military mishaps, like Little Big Horn or the Charge of the Light Brigade. The 12th book, Flashman on the March, breaks tradition with its account of 1968's Abyssinian War, a now-obscure skirmish and rescue mission marked by England's low casualties and stunning successes. Nevertheless, Flashman finds himself in appalling danger, fleeing from frying pans to fires with his characteristic dishonor intact. At one point he tries to save himself by kicking a female ally over a waterfall, which, typically, backfires.

Fraser's introduction never mentions contemporary conflicts by name, but he leaves little doubt about his beliefs: In England's conduct during the Abyssinian War, "There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies, just a decent resolve to do a government's first duty." Even from Flashman's cynical perspective, the conflict offers a rare example of England's officers using political capital and military might with wisdom instead of folly. Virtue doesn't impress Flashman easily, and he spends the rest of the book, with humorous chagrin, as a walking cautionary tale against doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Flashman on the March, George MacDonald Fraser. $24. Knopf. 335 pages.



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