By Nouran Maamoun
The famous Egyptian writer and novelist, Mohamed Mansi Qandil, writes history like no other writer does, taking readers into the realities of history. Some historical novel writers focus on the macro level, the historic events and their echoes, whilst other writers shed light on the social aspect of history. But Qandil braids history and society, events and people, kings and peasants into enormous pictures with a million details.
“Black Battalion” is a novel that is very hard to define, as it is a story of war, but not the kind of war books frequently talk about. Maybe the best way to describe this novel is as a story of human destiny.
Qandil starts his story with an Egyptian merchant’s trip down the Nile, and deep into the African jungles to a small village where the inhabitants have been betrayed by their own leader in a dirty deal. This means that free villagers are now being traded as slaves, in return for guns and weapons by the merchant.
From that moment forward, Qandil shows the journey of these men from their homes in the African jungles to their preparation for war in Cairo, then the voyage by sea to Mexico, a land they never heard of, and into a war in which they have had no hand and no say.
On a different continent and in the distant gardens of Europe behind the cold walls of palaces, a different story unfolds, a story of a prince forced to retire from life and power by his brother, the emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph. The prince, Maximilian, retreats to his palace, his gardens and his glass house with exotic plants, away from any consequence.
Maximilian’s life changes when he is offered the crown of the far-off and mysterious land of Mexico. He is offered this crown first by the Mexican parliament, and then by Napoleon III. Napoleon’s intervention makes Max hesitant to accept, especially as he knows this throne will make him lose his right to the Austrian throne and will also make him indebted to the French emperor.
However, Maximilian’s wife, the Belgian princess and daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, Charlotte, convinces him that it is his only chance to become an emperor and escape the eyes of his brother.
Maximilian enters into a scheme with Napoleon to invade, conquer, and rule Mexico, with the support of the French army.
The battalion is made up of an Egyptian battalion of 450 Egyptian and Sudanese men who fought under the French flag in Mexico in 1863, when Napoleon asked Khedive Saeed Pasha to help him in his war against the people of Mexico.
The African soldiers who were torn away from the warmth of their villages in Africa are thrown into a vicious war, in which they have no say, and are forced to be part of a battle in which they have no interest. They have been trained to be merciless and fierce in their fighting methods, until they become professional killers to the extent they are killing machines, or robots. This is Qandil’s way of extracting compassion from the hearts of warriors and throwing them into front after front, and serve master after master; the masters change, while slavery continues. Every scene in the book shows a glimpse of the lives of these characters.
One of the strongest characters in this book is “disobedient”, the name given to an African man captured into slavery, who has refused to accept his fate. From the earliest pages of the story, we see him as a rebellious man who adores freedom and refuses to let it go. He first tries to escape from the merchant, but he is shot, and following his recovery, he becomes stronger and smarter, until he is made the leader of his group. Once leader, he takes the group into battle and defies the hardships and dangers that he faces from Sudan to Egypt before sailing to Mexico. The Mexican Empress Charlotte, who has now been renamed Carlota by the Mexicans, chose the “disobedient” soldier as her personal guard, a relationship which later becomes an affair.
The story of the “disobedient” soldier then follows his role in the French revolutions and his continuous fighting for the rights of the oppressed. This character is a glimpse of hope, that a man who values his freedom can break any chains and destroy any barriers, that he can change his destiny from that of slavery to that of a revolutionary who fights in the name of freedom and liberty.
In these two parallel stories, Qandil shows that the worst of this planet is its inhabitants, that all the darkness in this world is handmade by humans. Qandil shows that the law of the jungle prevails even in communities which deem themselves civilised and modern, with most of those who think of themselves as oppressed are likely the oppressors of many others.
The story is one of human destiny, of love and war, violence and greed, freedom, revolution, and loss. It shows the divine justice in the destinies of the characters and that, ultimately, each one got what they deserved. The empress lost her mind, the emperor was killed and his empire dissolved. We also see this justice in the destiny of the slave trader who enslaved the soldiers in the first place; we see how he was humiliated and how he eventually loses everything. Other destinies were even more dramatic, such as the death of soldiers and the sicknesses of others.
The language Qandil uses in this book, as in all his books, is fluent and beautiful. His phrases are accurate and expressive, his sentences elegant and simple. However, many of his readers felt like he was stretching events and dialogues beyond need, and that the detailing of every single scene and the elaboration in descriptions were at times boring.
The book speaks of the emperor and his wife in a chapter, then the battalion in the following chapter and so on. The chapters on the battalion are more focused on events rather than the characters, while the chapters on the emperor and empress delve into the characters, which is what some readers did not like. Another response to the book was the lack of detail on Mexico and its peoples, of which readers only got to know through the attractive women whom every character desires.
The fascinating thing about “Black Battalion” is that it is a real event – the battalion is real, the soldiers were really enslaved and brought from Sudan to be sent by the ruler of Egypt to help the French in their assistance to Maximilian in his pursuit of the Mexican throne and his dream of a crown. It is a lost incident that very few people know about.
All in all, “Black Battalion” is a first class humanitarian story. Qandil is a master of drawing human emotions and characters in all the complexity of their development, twists, tranquillity and madness’ in a manner that makes readers empathise with them and understand their actions and their behaviour.