The Road to Samarcand
|The Road to Samarcand|
|Cover artist||Ralph Thompson|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
The Road to Samarcand is a novel by English author Patrick O'Brian, published in 1954 and set in Asia during the 1930s. Magazine Publishers Weekly writes about the novel: "Six decades later, O'Brian's richly told adventure saga, with its muscular prose, supple dialogue and engaging characters, packs a nice old-school punch." The Road to Samarcand precedes by 15 years the first novel of the Aubrey-Maturin series, the canon which brought O'Brian fame, and bears a relationship to its development.
The central character is an American teenaged youth named Derrick, who came to China with his missionary parents. Orphaned prior to the action and taken under his uncle's wing aboard The Wanderer, Derrick is at the wheel of the sailing ship in the South China Sea as the action begins. The boy's uncle, Captain Sullivan of the Asian Pacific shipping trade, feels the time has come to prepare Derrick for his future. He, his companion Ross and Derrick's older cousin, all believe that the youth must now leave the ship and attend school in England. This cousin, Professor Ayrton, is en route to China from England as the novel begins. He is an elderly, highly educated man and an expert in oriental archaeology. Derrick is unhappy with the prospect of leaving the ship, and Professor Ayrton proposes "to gild the pill of education" by taking the youth back to England via the famous road to Samarcand.
While structured with plot and subplots, and created with a cast of interesting characters, the novel draws its major appeal from O'Brian's great story-telling ability. The product of this ability can be seen as a series of adventures in exotic locales, the type of material designed to resonate in the imagination of a typical teenaged boy. There are neither female characters nor romance in The Road to Samarcand.
The story begins during a voyage on the South China Sea, where almost at once Derrick's ship encounters a typhoon. Surviving this perilous experience, the ship under Captain Sullivan reaches shore and completes the rendezvous with Professor Ayrton. Subsequent adventures are set up by forming and equipping the party for the journey to the road to Samarcand, a route better known today as the Silk Road. Members of the party include his relatives, Cousin Ayrton and Uncle Sullivan; Derrick, himself; Sullivan's intrepid companion, Ross; the ship's Chinese cook, Li Han; and one of Captain Sullivan's seamen, Olaf Svenssen. Horses and Mongolian guides are engaged: during the course of the story Derrick becomes a skilled horseman and learns to speak Mongolian. The party must follow a circuitous route to the road to Samarcand in order both to travel in safety and to satisfy Professor Ayrton's archaeological wishes. This circuitous route allows O'Brian to send the band to areas they would otherwise not have travelled and to reveal interesting aspects of the Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan cultures.
Some adventures are harmless, as when Derrick and his Mongolian companion ride out to hunt with a falcon and when the Professor acquires jade treasure; some involve danger. The latter includes imprisonment, escape, brushes with revolutionaries and bandits, and hand-to-hand fighting. The party becomes involved in deadly skirmishes at a time in history when the old skills of warfare are bowing to superior firepower. As this state-of-affairs turns dramatic, Professor Ayrton is forced to pass himself off as a Russian Army officer who specialises in armament. In reality he is anything but an expert and does not know how even to fire a gun when the expedition begins.
Other adventures involve dangers crossing a glacier where the party must face both blizzard conditions and inimical monks masquerading as yeti, and the loss and eventual rediscovery of party-members, Ross, Li Han and Olaf. As the final adventure, in what can be described as a deus ex machina, the little group escapes disaster in a functioning helicopter, which has been abandoned near the monastery where the band has been virtually imprisoned. O'Brian skirted anachronism in creating this manner of escape. Although the technology was available in the late 1930s, existing helicopters were limited to scarce prototypes, and actual aircraft were not produced in large numbers until the 1940s. Be that as it may, there is spare gasoline in a can, and the party is flown away by Ross. He is completely inexperienced as a helicopter pilot; however, O'Brian has created him with qualities which stretch the improbable escape to the verge of credibility: mechanical prowess—Ross is the only party member who succeeds in starting the engine—bravery, and a history as the captain of a ship. Airborne and finally out of danger, the party sees below on the ground their goal, the road to Samarcand.
Writing under his birth name, P.R. Russ, Patrick O'Brian published three stories in the Oxford Annual for Boys which involve Sullivan and Ross. They are "Noughts and Crosses" (1936), "Two's Company" (1937) and "No Pirates Nowadays" (1940). Although he had appeared in print previously, O'Brian had not created a relationship between men of an equal footing before "Noughts and Crosses," as he does with Sullivan and Ross. His biographer Dean King describes this as a "watershed" event. Fourteen years elapsed between the publications of "No Pirates Nowadays" and The Road to Samarcand. Despite the length of time, the short story may be considered the "prequel" to the novel. It opens with the same characters aboard the same ship in the same general locale that existed at the conclusion of the short story. O'Brian would continue writing in the style of the prequel and would maintain his target of adolescent males when he expanded his format to novel form in The Road to Samarcand.
Relationship to Aubrey-Maturin series
The Road to Samaracand foreshadows aspects of O'Brian's masterpiece, the Aubrey-Maturin series. Although the story takes place largely on land, like the novels in the nautical series, The Road to Samarcand begins with an adventure at sea. In this instance the ship and its crew are challenged to survive a typhoon. Described in a gripping manner, like the storms at sea in the Aubrey-Maturin series, O'Brian's writing of this storm sequence displays a mastery comparable with that of Joseph Conrad.
Furthermore, both Captain Sullivan and Professor Ayrton demonstrate traits and practices which may be seen later in Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In the first case, the personalities of Captain Sullivan and Captain Aubrey are dissimilar; however, a likeness can be drawn in a number of other matters. For example, Captain Sullivan exhibits superior courage, sailing and fighting abilities, as does Captain Aubrey. Sullivan travels with a particular friend, Ross, just as Aubrey almost always travels with Maturin. The significance of this similarity, the bond between the pairs of men, its development and role in the story line, is emphasised in the words of Patrick O'Brian: "The essence of my books is about human relationships and how people treat one another."
Readers of the Aubrey-Maturin series are familiar with Jack Aubrey's resort to his violin. Captain Sullivan also plays the violin. Jack Aubrey eventually becomes the owner of his beloved ship, the Surprise. So, Captain Sullivan owns the Wanderer. Both ships are outdated: the Surprise is no longer large enough or sufficiently armed to compete in combat with contemporary navy vessels, and the Wanderer is being superseded by steam-powered ships.
Certain qualities of Professor Ayrton are found in an extreme degree in Stephen Maturin. Both men are learned and well regarded in their specific fields and in general erudition. Despite high learning, both men encounter practical difficulties. Maturin, for example, is known inveterately to fall or bark his shins when attempting to cross between boats unaided, and in The Far Side of the World he even falls out of the ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when attempting to net specimens in the sea. In the process he becomes amazingly tangled in his net, and Jack Aubrey must dive in to rescue him. In the same incompetent manner, Professor Ayrton accidentally discharges his rifle as his small group stealthily prepares to spring an ambush, stating lamely, "It went off." In another incident reminiscent of Stephen Maturin, the professor misplaces an important map in his robes, and it is discovered that the map has gravitated to a different area of the garment, and he has been sitting upon it. Continuing the aforementioned incident from The Far Side of the World, Maturin's use of the South Pacific term,"taboo," nearly the extent of his linguistic knowledge of any Polynesian language, preserves Aubrey from castration at the hands of a crew of solely female mariners aboard their craft. This powerful incident is the remolding of an earlier passage in The Road to Samarcand, when Professor Ayrton is forced to extend himself in an unfamiliar language to mislead a company of dominant Tibetan females. They have chosen Olaf from Captain Sullivan's company as a bridegoom, but Professor Ayrton is able to convince them the Swede is not only mad, but subject to supernatural influences.
There are further similarities between The Road to Samarcand and the Aubrey-Maturin series, though perhaps less important. In a singular instance, Captain Sullivan refers to "a very strong-minded woman, not at all unlike a Mrs. Williams..." This is an amazingly apt description of Jack Aubrey's mother-in-law. Mrs. Williams appears in a number of novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series and occasionally influences the story line. The Road to Samarcand and Aubrey-Maturin series can also be compared with respect to O'Brian's inclusion of animals. The certain horses associated with Mongols are described, as are one- and two-humped camels, and there are numerous references to yaks. The frequent mention of tiger-sharks and albatrosses in the nautical series echoes incidents aboard the Wanderer. Finally, the relationship between Derrick and the dog he discovers, rescues and names Chang, is thoughtfully developed in the same way that human/animal relationships with dogs, cats and horses are developed throughout the Aubrey-Maturin series.
O'Brian's use of humour, very present in the later canon, is also an ingredient of The Road to Samarcand. A notable example is Professor Ayrton's attempts to use American slang. Typically, he has prepared for his meeting with Derrick by studying the subject in a book. His scholarly training, however, causes him to apply grammatical rules to a subject that defies grammar. Also present throughout the novel is a more gentle humour furnished by Li Han.
When the reader meets Jagiello, a Lithuanian in the Swedish army, in the seventh book of the Aubrey-Maturin series, O'Brian's "subtle and light touch with dialect" was well developed. Twenty-four years earlier in The Road to Samarcand it can be seen as still developing when he composes Olaf Svenssen's accented English. By contrast, the author's "fine ear for dialogue" shows well in the stylised speeches of Li Han.
- Staff (16 April 2007). "Fiction Reviews: week of 4/16/2007". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 26 January 2009.[dead link]
- Osborne, Linda Barrett (30 April 2000). "O'Brian Dry Shod". New York Times, Books in Brief: Fiction & Poetry. Retrieved 12 January 2009.
- O'Brian, Patrick (1954). The Road to Samarcand. p. 42.
- Day, Anthony (14 July 2007). "O'Brian's `Road' is worth the trip". LATimes – Entertainment. Retrieved 18 December 2008.
- Johnston, Julie; Peter Gokin. "Helicopter Facts, Links and Movies / Helicopter Technical Milestones". Straight Up, Helicopters in Action. Retrieved 24 December 2008.
- Day, Dwayne. "Introduction to Rotary-Wing Flight". U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved 23 December 2008.
- Kew, David (24 June 2002). "Patrick O'Brian, the Aubrey-Maturin Novels". Retrieved 18 December 2008.
- King, Dean (2000). Patrick O'Brian: A life revealed. London. p. 64.
- King, Patrick O'Brian, p.77.
- Mamet, David (17 January 2000). "The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius". New York Times. Retrieved 12 January 2009.
- King, Patrick O'Brian, p. 65.
- King, Patrick O'Brian, p. 67.
- O'Brian. The Road to Samarcand. p. 177.
- O'Brian. The Road to Samarcand. p. 209.
- O'Brian. The Road to Samarcand. p. 217.
- O'Brian. The Road to Samarcand. p. 219.
- Snow, Richard (6 January 1991). "An Author I'd Walk the Plank For". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 December 2008.
- Cunningham, A.E., ed.; William Waldegrave (1994). "Introduction". Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography. W.W. Norton. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
- Messenger, Robert (1 May 2005). "Patrick O'Brian's Naval Mastery". New Criterion. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
- O'Brian, Patrick (1954). The Road to Samarcand. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-393-06473-5.
- King, Dean (2000). Patrick O'Brian:A life revealed. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-79255-8.
- See photos of first practical helicopter.
- Links on Patrick O'Brian. References to Oxford Annual for Boys in archived postings below Gunroom internet mailing list.