The Best of Saki, edited by Martin Stephen, is a collection of short stories by famed 20th century writer Hector Hugh Munro. Saki is the pen name that Munro wrote his short stories under. Most of these stories were originally published in newspapers, which Saki did most of his writing for. After reading this collection of stories, I begin to wonder if The Best of Saki is really an appropriate title for this text. I have to admit that I was not very impressed by the vast majority of these stories.
If this is indeed Hector Hugh Munro’s best work, then I would have to say he does not deserve much of the fame that he has.
This book read about as exciting as history text, but with much less insight. Saki’s stories do give us a glimpse of early 20th century middle to upper class life, but doesn’t really tell us much more than can be learned by reading a social history book.
His stories mostly center around wild tales that make you wonder what this man was thinking. I would have to say that this man had about as morbid an imagination as Stephen King, but was supposed to be writing satire. (And had much less talent as Stephen King, whose worst work is ten times more exciting than Saki’s best.) Saki does deserve credit for some recognition of his skills in the art of satire, but after writing so many stories under this genre, it would only be expected that he would learn to use it well.
One of Saki’s major problems is that the satire gets boring after about the first hundred pages. Everyone of his stories begin to look alike, and are very easy to predict after reading the first five to ten of them. It could have been much more exciting of a reading, if only Saki would have used his satire differently in some of the stories. I do have to admit though, that these stories were not originally published as a collection, but instead one at a time in newspapers of the day, which would mean it would have been a lot less apparent just how similar these stories were.
Through his stories, the reader begins to wonder how biographical these stories are. Most of the stories deal with young boys, often orphans of some type, and older upper class women, many times one of these women will be the child’s aunt. There are very few men seen in his stories, and generally the adults are not portrayed in the best of light. The children, particularly a young boy, are often seen as the brightest characters, and also as the most deceitful. The child almost always is able to turn a situation to benefit him the most, if not through monetary rewards, then through the embarrassment of his elders.
Saki also has a morbid fascination of wild animals. Many of his stories include at least one animal in some way or another. It would appear that he was interested in hunting, or at least observed many hunting trips as a child. Many of the settings in this collection revolve around some type of hunting trip. The reader would almost think that there is something evil associated with the forest for all the tragedy that occurs in Saki’s stories. It is not very far into this book that we see the first child killed by one of these mysterious animals, and not very far after that, that we see this occur again. What is surprising about these occurrences is that no one really seems to notice, or really care when a child has been murdered. The reader begins to wonder if Saki is stating that death of these children is not better than life in the society he portrays. Many times when the older characters do notice this loss, it is only because they have lost a possession, and not be!cause they have lost a loved one. Sometimes the reader begins to wonder if Saki does not have more respect for these animals, than for human life. Though the wild animals kill, they are never actually viewed in a bad light, but instead almost as human, if not more than the other characters. Their killing of young children is just seen as a necessity of life, much like we must kill cows for nourishment, one wonders if Saki is not making the same statement about these animals.
The reader also sees a fascination of the supernatural apparent in many of these stories. This can be seen through the use of magic, angels, werewolves, and other things within his plots. He uses these things as nonchalantly as he does wild animals, as if these things would be as easy to believe. When we do see these supernatural occurrences, in most cases they just further complicate the lives of the mortal adults within the stories. One begins to question whether Saki really believes in these things himself, or is just using them to make the stories more interesting. If he is using them solely for interest sake, I sure wish he would have tried harder, but I do thank him for at least one concession.
I do have to admit that there were a few of these stories which I generally did enjoy. My favorite would have to be “The Mouse”. I must admit though that I enjoyed this story because of my own fear of mice. This is one instance where I sympathized with the main character, and no matter how hard I tried not to, could see myself in his own shoes. I think my enjoyment came from this story because it was the one instant that I actually related to the story, both the embarrassment and the fear. The irony is that though the woman he shared the compartment with was blind, he was the one that didn’t see anything. This story is good because it is one that can happen to anyone, and not some vivid story about a hunting trip, or some supernatural occurrence, but simply an event that the reader could easily see happen to himself.
I also enjoyed Fillboid Studge, the “Story of a Mouse that Helped”, for many of the same reasons. It is just like society to take a bright young man and use him for his talent, and after he has helped, just discard him like yesterday’s trash. This and “The Mouse” can both be described as timeless, because these are stories that do not have to be read in any context. They simply can be enjoyed by all. The disappointment in this story, though, is the fact that it too could happen to anyone. The reader is left to ponder what his/her choice is in the matter. Do we just give up on the sincerity of our fellow humans, and refuse to help anyone, or do we hope that the majority of people really are good? Saki does not attempt to answer this, though, he just presents this story, and then lets the reader make his own choice.
Among the other stories that I enjoyed were “Esme” and “The Unrest-Cure”. These two stories much more resemble the rest of the collection, and the themes I talked about earlier. “Esme” deals with an escaped hyena who is trapped by two female hunters, and basically taken as a pet. The hyena kills a child on there ride back from the trip, and is eventually hit and killed by a vehicle. The outcome is that one of the females gains a reward from the motorist, and the truth about the animal is never known. “The Unrest-Cure” on the other hand, deals with a young man who, after a train companion complains of a boring life, makes up a plot to return excitement to his new friend. In the end the family is completely convince of the plot, and the young man is the only one that knows the truth. Again, showing the intelligence of youth, and the ignorance of the elders.
The rest of the book, though, I can not say was very enjoyable. Most of the stories were just downright boring to read. There were a few more of the political satires that were interesting, but I wouldn’t readily recommend them to a friend. What I would recommend to anyone that decides to read this collection, is to just read the first couple paragraphs of the story, and if sounds bad skip it. I would say almost always this would be a good plan, since I can’t recall one of the stories that started bad, but got better. What I would have liked to see more of were the stories that I mentioned, that presented timeless tales, that anyone could relate to and enjoy.
To the history student who decides to read this, some can be learned. What I would recommend to this type of reader, though, is to first study this time period, and learn what to expect before reading this material. If this is done, your understanding of exactly what life was like, and how people acted, could be greatly improved. The thing to remember, though, is not to take this story at face value. Remember that Saki was just one man, and how he saw life could be very different than his contemporaries. As long as the reader remembers that Saki is primarily writing fiction, this book could be a tool to better understand his society. Still though, I wonder if there is not a more enjoyable author to read that could present life of this time period in the same way.
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