Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace
“I suppose the men who can analyze their thoughts, and separate the wise impulses from the rash ones, are the people whom the world calls men of destiny and whom history later assigns to its halls of fame. The rest of us simply act from pique, prejudice, passion or whatever other emotion is in charge.”
–Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace
by Talbot Mundy
I pre-loaded my Kindle with several books for a recent trip (I was going to spend some time on planes, where I can’t download more).
One of them was first published in 1936, and was by an author I had read before, Talbot Mundy.
I was expecting an exotic adventure with perhaps some supernatural elements.
Instead, I got a rip-roaring thriller…a button-pushing plot that could make a great summer blockbuster.
It’s been quite a while since I read a book that made me regret the times when I wasn’t reading it. I was involved with a family thing, so I couldn’t just read it straight through…but I leapt at it every chance I got.
I know it’s not going to be for everybody, but I really enjoyed the writing.
You’ll have to be prepared for a lot of cultural observation, but I didn’t find it offensive, generally. It’s the time between the World Wars…after “The War to End All Wars” and “The Great War”. It takes place in what we now call The Middle East (but it was the Near East then).
It’s a complicated time in Jerusalem: be prepared for references to Zionists, the British and the French aren’t exactly in agreement, and there are Sikhs, Sheikhs, and Damascenes.
Our hero is thrust into the situation, but there is a man there who is fully a part of it: a man called Jimgrim (Major James Schuyler Grim).
Jimgrim is one of those impossibly competent characters, like Sherlock Holmes. Mundy wisely makes him support to our far less competent narrator. It’s hard to be emotionally involved with someone who seems so unlike you, who seems like she or he can’t lose. Instead, Jimgrim here is essential to the plot and a force of nature…but not the one on whom we hang our hearts.
While I think the book would make a great movie, I can’t imagine who could play Jimgrim. He is a master of disguise…but not because of any special sort of makeup. It’s because he has several identities, each from a different culture, each convincing even to those within the group, some as subtly different as Clark Kent and Superman. You can describe that in a book, but it’s hard to pull off on screen.
The plot involves a dastardly scheme, like something out of James Bond…but quite believable. The politics make sense…convoluted politics, but quite accessible to the reader.
Mundy’s writing rings true for many of the cultures involved…and he himself was widely traveled. The only misstep for me was the description of a minor character of African descent…that one struck me as a bit stereotyped, unlike the way most of the characters appear to me.
There are quite a few characters, and I found many of them charming, distinct, and memorable.
One thing, which I didn’t mind at all, is that the book has two clear halves…that may be a legacy of it having been published serially initially.
As you can tell, I’m recommending this one.
You can get it for free here:
and that comes in several formats, including azw for Kindle and EPUB and PDF (so you’ll be covered on your iPad, Sony, or NOOK).
You might also just want to pay ninety-nine cents for 17 Talbot Mundy novels here:
Here’s the opening…
There is a beautiful belief that journalists may do exactly as they please, and whenever they please. Pleasure with violet eyes was in Chicago. My passport describes me as a journalist. My employer said: “Go to Jerusalem.” I went, that was in 1920.
I had been there a couple of times before the World War, when the Turks were in full control. So I knew about the bedbugs and the stench of the citadel moat; the pre-war price of camels; enough Arabic to misunderstand it when spoken fluently, and enough of the Old Testament and the Koran to guess at Arabian motives, which are important, whereas words are usually such stuff as lies are made of.
El Kudz, as Arabs call Jerusalem, is, from a certain distance, as they also call it, shellabi kabir. Extremely beautiful. Beautiful upon a mountain. El Kudz means The City, and in a certain sense it is that, to unnumbered millions of people. Ludicrous, uproarious, dignified, pious, sinful, naively confidential, secretive, altruistic, realistic. Hoary-ancient and ultra-modern. Very, very proud of its name Jerusalem, which means City of Peace. Full to the brim with the malice of certainly fifty religions, fifty races, and five hundred thousand curious political chicaneries disguised as plans to save our souls from hell and fill some fellow’s purse. The jails are full.
“Look for a man named Grim,” said my employer. “James Schuyler Grim, American, aged thirty-four or so. I’ve heard he knows the ropes.”
The ropes, when I was in Jerusalem before the war, were principally used for hanging people at the Jaffa Gate, after they had been well beaten on the soles of their feet to compel them to tell where their money was hidden. The Turks entirely understood the arts of suppression and extortion, which they defined as government. The British, on the other hand, subject their normal human impulse to be greedy, and their educated craving to be gentlemanly white man’s burden-bearers, to a process of compromise. Perhaps that isn’t government. But it works. They even carry compromise to the point of not hanging even their critics if they can possibly avoid doing it. They had not yet, but they were about to receive a brand-new mandate from a brand-new League of Nations, awkwardly qualified by Mr. Balfour’s post-Armistice promise to the Zionists to give the country to the Jews, and by a war-time promise, in which the French had joined, to create an Arab kingdom for the Arabs.
So there was lots of compromising being done, and hell to pay, with no one paying, except, of course, the guests in the hotels, at New York prices. The Zionist Jews were arriving in droves. The Arabs, who owned most of the land, were threatening to cut all the Jews’ throats as soon as they could first get all their money. Feisal, a descendant of the Prophet, who had fought gloriously against the Turks, was romantically getting ready in Damascus to be crowned King of Syria. The French, who pride themselves on being realistic, were getting ready to go after Feisal with bayonets and poison-gas, as they eventually did.
In Jerusalem the Bolsheviks, astonishingly credulous of “secret” news from Moscow, and skeptical of every one’s opinion but their own, were bolsheviking Marxian Utopia beneath a screen of such arrogant innocence that even the streetcorner police constables suspected them. And Mustapha Kemal, in Anatolia, was rumoured to be preparing a holy war. It was known as a Ghazi in those days. He had not yet scrapped religion. He was contemplating, so said rumour, a genuine old-fashioned moslem jihad, with modern trimmings.
A few enthusiasts astonishingly still laboured for an American mandate. At the Holy Sepulchre a British soldier stood on guard with bayonet and bullets to prevent the priests of rival creeds from murdering one another. The sun shone and so did the stars. General Bols reopened Pontius Pilate’s water-works. The learned monks in convents argued about facts and theories denied by archaeologists. Old-fashioned Jews wailed at the Wailing Wall. Tommy Atkins blasphemously dug corpses of donkeys and dogs from the Citadel moat.
I arrived in the midst of all that, and spent a couple of months trying to make head or tail of it, and wondering, if that was peace, what war is? They say that wherever a man was ever slain in Palestine a flower grows. So one gets a fair idea of the country’s mass-experience without much difficulty. For three months of the year, from end to end, the whole landscape is carpeted with flowers so close together that, except where beasts and men have trodden winding tracks, one can hardly walk without crushing an anemone or wild chrysanthemum. There are more battle-fields in that small land than all Europe can show. There are streams everywhere that historians assert repeatedly “ran blood for days.”
Five thousand years of bloody terrorism, intermingling of races, piety, plunder, politics and pilgrims, have produced a self- consciousness as concentrated as liquid poison-gas. The laughter is sarcastic, the humour sardonic, and the credulity beyond analysis. For instance, when I got there, I heard the British being accused of “imperialistic savagery” because they had removed the leprous beggars from the streets into a clean place where they could receive medical treatment.
It was difficult to find one line of observation. Whatever anybody told you, was reversed entirely by the next man. The throat-distorting obligation to study Arabic called for rather intimate association with educated Arabs, whose main obsession was fear of the Zionist Jews. The things they said against the Jews turned me pro-Zionist. So I cautiously made the acquaintance of some gentlemen with gold-rimmed spectacles, and the things they said about the Arabs set me to sympathizing with the sons of Ishmael again.
In the midst of that predicament I met Jimgrim—Major James Schuyler Grim, to give him his full title, although hardly any one ever called him by it. After that, bewilderment began to cease as, under his amused, painstaking fingers, thread after thread of the involved gnarl of plots and politics betrayed its course.
However, first I must tell how I met him…
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.