Interview: On the Anglophobic French Classic Unread in English for 150 Years

Sam Miller talks about his latest book, Once Upon A Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran, the first-ever translation into English of the raucous 1867 French classic.

An illustration from Sam Miller's Once Upon a Time in India: , showing Captain Corcorant and the tigress Louisant. Credit: Juggernaut Books

An illustration by Alphonse de Neuville from Alfred Assollant’s Once Upon a Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran (Juggernaut, 2016), now translated into English by Sam Miller, showing the Frenchman Captain Corcoran and the tigress Louison. Credit: Juggernaut Books

Sam Miller is that peculiar type of Englishman who has spent so much time abroad that being back in England – especially at a time the country is exiting the EU – hardly feels like being home. Born in 1962 in London, Miller was posted to India as a BBC correspondent in the early 1990s and then again in 2002,  and remained here until moving back to his country of birth recently.

Perhaps nothing illustrates his unusual sense of belonging as much as his latest book, Once Upon A Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran (Juggernaut, 2016). Originally written in 1867 by Frenchman Alfred Assollant, this book, whose protagonist is a freewheeling Briton searching for an obscure Hindu holy book in an India on the brink of the 1857 uprising, has been a cult classic in France for over a century, but it has never been translated into English – until now.

Miller ran across a reference to the text while researching for his last book, A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (Penguin, 2014), and decided to embark on the project. The Wire spoke to Miller about this latest adventure in translation.

Sam Miller. Credit: Juggernaut Books

Sam Miller. Credit: Juggernaut Books

How are things in London?

[Laughs ruefully] It is an extraordinary time. It is hard to believe all that is happening, but, at the same time, watching it is a bit addictive, like watching Game of Thrones. You wonder if there are any good people in the political scene at all, or if it is all about driving ambition. At the same time, it is odd for me. In India, because of my features, to most people I’m just another Englishman – and yet I do not think I identify…

Well, you would be one of the few Englishmen to have translated an Anglophobic work into English. How did that happen?

Sam Miller Once Upon A Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran Juggernaut, 2016

Alfred Assollant, translated by Sam Miller
Once Upon A Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran
Juggernaut, 2016

Well, because it is a great and wonderful story, and it had not been translated. Obviously I didn’t plan that it would be published at a time like this, but I am happy in a way that it has. Also, while the author has a scathing view of the English, he feels the same way about the French elite, whether the political or intellectual elite. After all, the book starts off with a scene of a set of French academics at the Academy of Sciences in Lyon, so pompous that they have all fallen asleep while one of their contemporaries is giving a lecture on the exciting discoveries about the movement of a spider’s leg. The only character that Assollant portrays as wholly good – though temperamental – is Louison, and she is a tigress!

Louison does seem to be at the heart of the book. Quite often, her actions are what progress the plot.

I think Louison works as comedy, as drama – after all, few things are more dramatic than a tigress. The humour is very important. Here is a tigress, who is always hungry (something we can often relate to) and looks at many of the characters as a timely snack. And she is in the midst of the great events that mark the 1857 uprising in India. In the midst of issues of great import, for the tigress, it is all just one big laugh.

Louison seems a part of a European trend – of the anthropomorphisation of animals.

An illustration from the book, showing Captain Corcoran and the tigress Louison. Credit: Juggernaut Books

An illustration from the book showing Captain Corcoran and the tigress Louison. Credit: Juggernaut Books

She predates all the examples I can think of – Rudyard Kipling would have been two years old when this was first published (though I doubt he ever read it). And this has a funny aspect to it. Throughout the book Corcoran is convinced Louison understands every word he is saying, and gives her instructions with great assurance. But we readers can see she doesn’t really understand, or maybe just disagrees. That makes Corcoran a bit of a clown, therefore we are more ‘in’ on the joke than anybody in the book. I think it would make a wonderful film, with these lovely images that Assollant conjures up. And the illustrations [by Alphonse de Neuville] are truly wonderful.

But he also gets so many things wrong. This is not how animals behave, and tigers do not like monkeys or humans; those are leopard’s prey. Then, there are certainly no rhinos in Maratha lands, and one doesn’t hunt them by throwing stones on their hide.

The whole book’s relation to reality is complicated. Some things are completely wrong, while others are spot on. Assollant never travelled to India, and I don’t know where he got his information from – I have not been able to find out. This was written only ten years after 1857, so there would have been a lot in the newspapers. Obviously he got the names Holkar and Scindia from somewhere, but in the book Holkar is a king, and Scindia becomes an elephant.

There is no biography of Assollant, and all I know about him could be written on a single page. He died in a poorhouse, and his whole family seemed to fall apart. His children died young. His funeral was attended by only four people. At that time his book was doing very well. He had a sister whose sons were already important figures – his nephews would go on to become generals and governors. But because this was originally a book for teenage boys, nobody took it very seriously, as something to be written about, or researched.

But people obviously valued it – Jean Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci read it, for instance.

Yes, Gramsci wrote about Assollant and the book while in jail, and Sartre mentioned it as one of his favourite books as a child. Assollant is clearly of the Left, very much against emperors and kings, whether British, French or even Indian. He was in favour of universal male suffrage, which was not the norm at the time. There is that fascinating dialogue between Corcoran and Sugriva on the failures of Indian monarchy and the problems with the caste system, and you would think it was written fifty years ago, not one hundred and fifty.

In a sense he seems closest to Karl Marx, who also wrote about India without ever having travelled here, and identified problems with class and caste hierarchy.

Did Assollant put these political ideas into practice?

He did stand for elections, but he did not win, did not even come close, always 9th or 10th. [Laughs] That is how I would like to fight elections.