When M. M. Kaye's "The Far Pavilions," a saga of British India, appeared in 1978, my comment in the pages of this newspaper was that she had joined the ranks of first-rate storytellers. It seemed we could look forward to summers of good reads from an English writer who understood the moods of a turbulent country where she had spent, a good part of her life. But because of the zeal of her publishers, that prediction proved to be premature.
"Shadow of the Moon," an earlier novel that had been severely edited, was reissued the following year in its uncut form to capitalize on the success of "The Far Pavilions." This was a mistake; the earlier editing had been just, and only the author's depiction of the teeming Indian subcontinent saved the novel from a quick trip to the remainder section of the bookstores.
Faith in the effectiveness of recycling appears now to have prompted another reisuse of another earlier novel, "Trade Wind." The original manuscript has been restored, showing once again the folly of such puffing and padding. Zanzibar, the island off the coast of southeast Africa where "Trade Wind" is set, has neither the history nor the glamour to sustain such a big book.
Hero Hollis, a rich, headstrong young woman from 19th-century Boston, sails the Atlantic to visit her uncle, an American consul in Zanzibar under Arab rule. A storm at sea tosses her onto the ship of Capt. Rory Frost, a dashing renegade slaver. Whether virtue will succumb to the charms of the wicked Captain Frost is the leitmotif of "Trade Wind." Hero is as proper and self-righteous (albeit beautiful) as Rory is unconventional and cynical. She hates slavery and has determined to stamp it out in Zanzibar, if not the world. He feels that human greed -- whether black, Arab, or Western -- will permit slavery to flourish.
Indeed, the sociological issue at the heart of the novel -- slavery -- hasa timeliness and instructiveness that save the novel from disaster. it is disheartening but illuminating to find that not only Americans, but the British and French, as well, made piles of money in the slave trade. The reader unacquainted with the history of slavery will discover that the Arabs and Africans, too, had engaged in the trade for thousands of years, selling their fellows around the world like vegetables.
Hero is the voice for Mollie Kaye's moral lectures. Beginning as a crusading zealot, Hero soon finds her values hard to sustain in her new home. She buys up slaves to set them free, and pays a freed slave to hire them. He uses her money to buy more land, where he works his new laborers viciously. She involves herself in smuggling money to finance a palace rebellion against the reigning sultan by his brother, in the mistaken belief that the new sultan will wipe out the slave trade. In truth, the rebel brother just prefers the French slavers over the British.
The sultan thinks Hero needs a husband, preferably one who will beat her when she behaves foolishly. His friend Captain Frost, a scalawag but at least British, prefers a little romantic rape instead. Nonetheless, the reader can expect that he will change his evil ways under the influence of a good woman, and retire his swashbuckling to the English countryside.
This falderal does indeed have a historical background, which the author researched while living in Zanzibar in the '50s. She evokes, in her postscript, a sentimental picture of herself in the library of the British club there, taking notes from first editions ignored by other Britishers, who are presumably out presiding over cricket and the demise of the Empire. She based the palace rebellion on information from an autobiography of a sultan's daughter, "Memoirs of an Arabian Princess." That an Arabian princess in primitive Zanzibar of the last century had the education and intellect to write a memoir while her male relatives were engaged in cutting off heads and trafficking in s lavery is a fascinating footnote to history.