25 February 2009

Book review: I Am a Barbarian

I Am a Barbarian
By Edgar Rice Burroughs (Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., 1967)
[I wrote this review a few years ago and it appeared on a website, but it seems to have vanished into the ether of time on the Internet. Considering my recent run on ERB material, and that I’m currently reading and preparing a review for the “companion” novel to this one, Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, I felt I needed to revive this overview.]

Edgar Rice Burroughs, inventor of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars—and by extension the pulp magazines as we know them—wrote I Am a Barbarian in 1941, when his creative forces appeared spent. He had started his final series, the disappointing and creatively stagnant Venus/Amtor novels, in 1932. The Tarzan adventures limped along, and the once superb Martian series had sputtered out. He wrote only one more complete novel after this one, Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion.” The entry of the United States into World War II prompted Burroughs to take a job as a war correspondent, reducing the time he devoted to writing (or, more accurately, dictating) fiction. I Am a Barbarian did not see print until 1967, nineteen years after the author’s death, when the company he created, ERB Inc., released it in a limited edition of two hundred hardcover books. It soon appeared in a mass-market paperback edition with a gorgeous Boris Vallejo illustration adorning the front (seen here). But it remains one of Burroughs’s least-known works, and even with the recent publication of quality editions of his books, I Am a Barbarian still languishes out of print.

This is an unfortunate situation, because I Am a Barbarian rates as one of the author’s best-written works, and it differs substantially from the standard adventure fare that made him famous but eventually turned stale. Perhaps Burroughs’s had simply tired of the chase-and-escape formula that he had relied on with so many other novels and wanted try something different. The virile title immediately suggests Burroughs business-as-usual, but this isn’t a “barbarian” adventure like a Tarzan novel or The Eternal Savage. It’s a fictionalized historical biography, essentially Burroughs’s version of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. (Naming it I, Barbarian, would have been a touch too obvious, but I Am a Barbarian certainly comes close.)

Graves’s immensely popular historical novel, published seven years earlier to great acclaim, told the first-person account of the early Julio-Claudian Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Caius. I Am a Barbarian uses the identical concept and time period, while slanting it more toward its author’s talents. Instead of viewing ancient Rome through the eyes of a future emperor, Burroughs describes it through the view of a hardened Briton slave. He also narrows the focus to that of one emperor: Caius Caesar, the mad despot better known by his childhood nickname “Caligula” (“Little Boot”).

As he did in many of his works, Burroughs uses a preface to create the illusion of veracity. The Foreword claims that the book is a “free translation of the memoirs of Britannicus, for twenty-five years the slave of Caius Caesar Caligula, emperor of Rome from A.D. 37 to 41,” and lists real sources used to authentic the “facts.” Burroughs does a fine job of maintaining the illusion of Britannicus’s historic voice and presents a realistic look at ancient Rome. The dialogue sometimes slips into Americanized slang, like “nuts!” and “fat chance,” but otherwise Burroughs’s prose stays faithful to its narrator and period.

Most of the novel occurs during the rule of Tiberius Caesar (14–37 C.E.) and concludes with Caligula’s brief but gory reign (37–41 C.E.). The narrator is Britannicus, a slave from Briton whom the young Caligula demanded as his personal servant. Britannicus lives at the whim of this petulant Caesar and his hateful mother, Agrippina, granddaughter of the beloved first emperor, Caesar Augustus. Britannicus has an amicable relationship with Caligula—one of strangest male relationships in the Burroughs canon—but one immersed in tension. Because of the cruel murders of his parents after the Romans captured them, Britannicus swears that one day he will “kill a Caesar.” Readers should have no trouble deducing which Caesar he has in mind.

Black comic satire of the decadence of Rome—or more specifically the decadence of the Julio-Claudians—dominates the book, and Burroughs shows a knack for the brand of biting humor that he rarely got to practice in his other works. Britannicus spares no opportunity to criticize his masters: “From birth, apparently, all the male children in both lines had that idea impressed upon them—to grow up and become an emperor and be poisoned and stabbed in the back. It always seemed to me a ridiculous ambition.” He describes the hateful Agrippina:
Her pride in the Julian blood stemmed from the fact that the family was supposed to have descended directly from a goddess: Venus. But why that should have been anything to boast of, I do not know. Had I been descended from Venus, I should have kept the matter very quiet. She had been a notoriously loose woman, appallingly promiscuous.
Although Britannicus is a barbarian slave among the aristocracy of Rome, he has his own trace of snobbery. He takes pride in his heritage from Cingetorix, the King of Kent (mentioning it innumerable times), and disdains the plebs of Rome as much as he hates the tainted aristocracy. Like Robert E. Howard, Burroughs shows an appreciation of the moral clarity of the barbarian, but he also had a streak of elitism that percolates through his writing, and this book is no exception.

During the twenty-five years that I Am a Barbarian covers, the story switches between the political jockeying, murdering, and general vileness of the Julio-Claudians and the personal life of Britannicus. Britannicus forms important friendships and develops into an excellent charioteer, while the family that owns him tries to maneuver their children onto the Emperor’s throne when the aged Tiberius finally dies. The emphasis is on character and style instead of action, which might disappoint fans of Burroughs’s early fast-paced adventures. The action passages, which include a deadly chariot race, a battle in the Coliseum with a tiger, and a tense near-crucifixion, are very exciting. But the book’s effectiveness stems from Burroughs’s readable style and the fun he has with the sarcastic commentary on Roman decadence.

Burroughs still stumbles over some of his favorite overused devices. He hauls out a chestnut that originates back in his first novel, A Princess of Mars: the frustrated but idealized romantic pursuit. The love that Britannicus has for the slave girl Attica, who spurns him frequently just because she can, feels too similar to the frustrated romantic chases in Tarzan of the Apes, At the Earth’s Core, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, and many others. A love triangle between Brittannicus, Attica, and charioteer Numerius has no genuine tension because Britannicus and Numerius remain friendly with each other in their rivalry.

Burroughs sometimes relies too heavily on his sources, especially I, Claudius. He enumerates the terrors of the Caligula’s reign in a rote fashion, as if he simply had I, Claudius and Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars open in front of him and copied off the mad emperor’s “greatest hits.” All of Caligula’s famed sayings and atrocities—”Off comes this head whenever I give the word,” “Let them hate provided they are afraid,” random slayings of men with more hair than he, nominating his favorite horse to the Senate—get ticked off the list one-by-one. As interesting as Caligula’s madness is, in these passages the book gets too distanced from Britannicus and too imbedded in the blood-red splashes of history. Burroughs does finally weave the romance with Attica into Caligula’s story with a thrilling chariot race and the passionate, bloody conclusion.

Fans and admirers of Edgar Rice Burroughs who have yet to experience I Am a Barbarian should seek it out. Despite the novel’s flaws (and what Burroughs’s novel isn’t flawed?) it will remind readers that the man from Tarzana was a far more talented and varied writer than his critics—and some of his fans—ever imagined.