An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"A Gentleman of Color" -- P.C. Wren (GOOD GESTES, 1929)

Beau Geste is perhaps the most famous story of the French Foreign Legion.  It's been filmed several times, most famously with Gary Cooper in the title role.  But author P.C. Wren didn't stop there; he wrote two sequel novels, Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal, as well as a short story collection, Good Gestes, from which today's story derives, and a number of other Legion-related novels not starring Beau Geste and his brothers.  Something right off the bat that I thought was real interested is that Otto Penzler, in his introduction to the story, is careful to mention that the story was written in another time, one less politically-correct then our own, and that it contains elements that may offend modern readers.  There was no such warning before "The Wings of Kali," wherein the hero threw piglets at Muslim assassins to drive them away.  So why the warning here?

"A Gentleman of Color" concerns itself with Legionnaire Yato, a small, wiry Japanese man serving alongside the Geste boys.  A talented barber, artist, and fluent in English, French, Russian and German, Yato is as
inoffensive and polite as they come.  This, of course, attracts the ire of some of the more loutish members of the Legion.  An attempt to toss Yato in a blanket fails when Yato finally stoops to defending himself, beating three men silly and breaking the arm of Klingen, a fourth bully.

Klingen, an incredibly vain man, won't take the insult of a broken arm lightly, and begins a long campaign of verbal abuse and mean-spirited pranks on Yato, without actually touching the man.  He reminds Yato frequently and loudly that he is a colored man, and therefore inferior to white men, if he's a man at all.

The final straw comes when Klingen realizes that Yato visits one house in town fairly frequently.  Figuring he has a girl there, Klingen decides the ultimate insult would be to seduce her away from "the yellow monkey." Klingen being Klingen, his idea of "seduction" is to force himself on the girl he finds there and leave her sobbing in pain and shame when he's done.

When Yato gets wind of what happens, he plans to avenge the young lady very carefully.  And when he's done, Klingen will be the "gentleman of color"...

It seems so odd to me; of the three Foreign Legion stories presented in The Big Book of Adventure Stories, two are essentially comedies.  "Snake-Head" hinges on the fact that old Thibaut Corday has mistaken the legend of Perseus for a retelling of his own strange adventure, while "A Gentleman of Color"'s strength lies in its embodiment of Ambrose Bierce's statement that meekness is "uncommon patience in planning a revenge that is worth while" and the irony that the titular "gentleman of color" is Klingen after suffering Yato's vengeance, rather than Yato himself.  It's odd to me because I don't see anything inherently funny about the French Foreign Legion; I would expect most Legionnaire fiction to focus on the hardships and the fighting, not on M*A*S*H* style hijinks.

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