Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pirates, Cossacks and Cossacks who are Pirates

I’ve written about Harold Lamb’s Cossack stories before—many of which had never been reprinted until a four-book anthology was published a few years ago. So I’ve never had a chance to read a bunch of these before. I’m enjoying every single one of them.

Take the novella “Mark of Astrakhan.”(from the Nov. 20, 1925 issue of Adventure) It’s told in the first person by a 17th Century Cossack named Barbakosta, who lives in a remote hut on the steppes. One winter day, a he runs across a guy in soaking wet clothes, whom he brings to his hut for warmth and food.

The guy’s name is Mark and he’s from Virginia of all places. He ended up in Russia after a career as a buccaneer eventually got him captured by the Spanish and sold to the Turks. He escaped from a Turkish galley after the vessel sunk.

Both men speak Turkish, so they are able to communicate and strike up a friendship, especially after Mark defends Barbakosta’s hut from Tatar bandits.

The two eventually travel to the city of Astrakhan, where Mark takes a job as artilleryman in the Russian military. There’s a need for trained soldiers, since it’s rumored that the Cossack pirate Stenka Razin may be attacking the city.

But the local governor of the city soon learns that you can’t depend on soldiers you haven’t paid for a year while you hold elaborate and expensive parties in your mansion.

The two protagonists are captured by the pirates when the city inevitably falls. They might have gotten away if they had still been on their own. But by now, there is a girl involved—the niece of a Roundhead soldier who fled England after Cromwell’s regime fell and also ended up serving in the Russian military. The need to save himself, Barbakosta and the girl leads Mark to challenge the pirate leader to a drinking bout, followed by a shooting match.

So far, all this has made for a great story. But Barbakosta’s unpretentious first person narration gives the tale a snap and a sense of personality that makes you wish you had an excuse to read it aloud to someone. Plot twists come along at a furious pace and the tale builds up to an exhilarating climax when the two friends (and the girl) end up working for Stenka Razin to defend Astrakhan against a large Persian fleet. 

Much of the novella is built around the pirate leader—a man capable of acts of horrible brutality, but who can still appreciate loyalty and bravery; a man who can inspire devotion in his followers and lead from the front when the come into battle, but can still sometimes act on whims that place those followers in grave danger. For much of the story, he’s the nominal bad guy and we get several brutal examples of just how murderous he can sometimes be. But one of the several pleasurable aspects of the novella is how the plot twists slowly morphs our point-of-view until we get to the point where we’re really rooting for this guy.

But the novella is primarily Mark’s story. Lamb’s yarns would often involve an outsider thrust into a strange culture, using his wits and his fighting skills to think or battle his way out of dangerous situations. “Mark of Astrakhan” is a fine example of this.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, this man is in reality Georgian horseman, not cossack, who under the name of Russian Cossack participated in Wild West show. visit


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