Genghis Khan – Frank McLynn
Sinners are more interesting than saints, I always think. And I have an enduring fascination with individuals whom history has characterised as monsters. What made them tick? How were they able to exert such influence over people? What was their drive? How did they evaluate risk and spot the main chance? My bookshelves are littered with books about Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Napoleon and the like.
Naturally, therefore, I was drawn to McLynn’s new biography of Genghis Khan, the man who, as an illiterate nomad, came to conquer the largest territorial expanse ever. I had read McLynn before; his book, 1759, chronicled Britain’s annus mirabilis in which we laid the foundations for our empire by bashing the French, principally, in all corners of the world. That book was hard going – too many detailed descriptions of battles for my taste – but I got through it.
Alas, like many people I was beaten by the Mongol leader but, fortunately, unlike the 40 million souls who are thought to have perished during their campaigns, I survived to tell the tale. I rarely give up on books but, perhaps with age I am getting more intolerant, I did with this one. Reading is a bit like making an investment. You need to realise when you open the covers or click on the image on your e-reader that your investment of time could go up (yield benefits such as knowledge, pleasure, philosophical insights) or could go down (bore you rigid, irritate you beyond measure, add nothing to your bank of knowledge). The sensible reader knows when to bail out and for me that point was towards the end of chapter 2, having twice before contemplated ending the experience and giving it the benefit of the doubt.
So what was the problem? Several, actually. As I had experienced with 1759 McLynn doesn’t have a light stylistic touch. His prose is heavy on tortured metaphors, figures of speech and dense exegeses. A light and breezy resume of the life and achievements of Genghis Khan, it ain’t. The author, as he freely admits, is heavily reliant upon secondary sources – understandable as the Mongols themselves were largely illiterate and took the view that actions spoke louder than words. Often the only contemporary or near contemporary sources came from the vanquished who may have had a particular metaphorical axe – they had lost all their literal ones – to grind. And the enormity of their territorial gains meant that to access primary sources required a facility in a number of languages. But the downside is uncertainty as to whether the secondary sources provide the right spin and a requirement on the part of the author to debate the merits of differing accounts of an event. Worthy scholastically but a bit wearing for the general reader.
McLynn starts out with the proposition that in order to understand Genghis and the Mongols you need to understand the terrain of what is now Mongolia. Possibly, but the consequence is an extremely tedious description of the region, so detailed that I managed to lose my bearings several times. And then we plunge into the genealogy of the Khans and the marriage contracts, murders, acts of revenge etc that set Genghis on his way. Whilst I didn’t want an endless recital of massacres with pyramids of skulls, by this time I was getting pretty impatient and felt like someone was showing me a wonderful sports car with all the trimmings but, actually, one that didn’t move. Fearing that I was in the presence of Arthur Daley I shut the book.