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If you gotta swipe a plot...
Robert A. Heinlein
|...swipe from the best, and Heinlein certainly did here, lifting his plot from Anthony Hope (Hodgeson)'s classic swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda.
The interesting things about this book (which is NOT one of RAH's juveniles) that at first appear to set it apart from the majority of Heinlein's output are all characteristics of the narrator, Lorenzo.
Lorenzo is a xenophobe, an unheard-of trait for a Heinlein protagonist.
Lorenzo is completely incompetent at mathematics -- while RAH (through the mouthpiece of Lazarus Long) has opined that no-one is truly human who cannot understand higher mathematics.
Lorenzo is completely uninterested in politics or anything having to do with government, except as he personally may find himself interacting with law enforcement officials.
Lorenzo presents himself as something of a coward.
And Lorenzo is a raving egomaniac.
But Lorenzo learns to deal with his fear of Martians.
He never does learn math, but we gradually come to recognise that Heinlein has pulled a switch on us, and that Lorenzo is still our old friend, Heinlein's Competent Man -- but that his competency lies in another direction.
Because Lorenzo is recruited for the greatest challenge of an actor's career -- to impersonate, literally in front of entire worlds, an immensely famous politician, who has been kidnapped by his political enemies in order to derail an important treaty with the inahbitants of Mars.
And, gradually, as Lorenzo comes to know the man he must replace -- know him from the inside out, and "become" him, to the point that he can extemporise politically sound speeches in the Great Man's style -- that he begins to understand that politics is all-important in making it possible for the masses to live in peace and security, Lorenzo Grows Up.
The Lorenzo we meet on Page One is a cheerful, flippant, shallow and actually fairly immature man, getting by on his good looks and undeniable talent, but never really extending himself, or using that talent to its fullest extent. (Though he quotes his actor-father: "Larry, the two worst things in this business are pretty and stupid, and you're both," Lorenzo clearly hasn't yet comprehended what the old man meant.) The Lorenzo we see by the end of the story proper has matured, seen some of the wrongs that need righting, and has realised that someone has to step up to the line and take a stand or the wrongs will simply continue; that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
And that is what the story is about, really -- like RAH's juvenile, "Starman Jones", this is mostly a story about a man growing up and accepting a man's role and responsibilities.
And, as the much-older Lorenzo adds as a short coda at the very end of the book, learning the important thing about the faceless masses, the thing that so many politicians lose sight of -- that they have lives of their own.
That they can hurt.
(At least one previous Amazon review alluded to the excerpts from Bonforte's speeches -- i strongly suspect that, as the character of Bonforte himself seems to be by the man, they are heavily influenced or inspired by the oratory of Winston Churchill. Particularly, when i read the passage about choosing sides, i hear Winnie's voice in my head...)
|Lorenzo's occasional references to his father and his father's advice and lessons, and his obvious failure at the beginning of the story to have fully processed them, puts me in mind of Mark Twain's line:|
"When i was eighteen, my father was the stupidest man alive. By the time I was twenty-one, I was amazed at how much the old boy had learnt in just three short years."
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|A Historical Note of Dubious Veracity:|
Of course, as any one who has read the posthumously-published, uncensored memoirs of Brigadier Sir Harry Flashman knows, Prisoner of Zenda is merely a fictionalisation of events recorded by Flashman in those memoirs (edited for publication by George McDonald Fraser under the title Royal Flash).
Having escaped the clutches of Bismark, Lola Montez and Rudi Starnberg and made it safely back to England, Flashman regaled his solicitor, Anthony Hope Hodgeson with the story, which Hodgeson fictionalised and published under the name "Anthony Hope".
One is rather impressed by how closely Hodgeson's novel follows the facts of Flashman's adventure without naming actual names, though for obvious reasons, Hodgeson felt it safer to set the events in the mythical kingdom of Ruritania, in order to not risk inflaming international passions any more than they already were by the Schleswig-Holstein question.
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