Friendship valued more in fiction

Friendship valued more in fiction

It is arguably our most valuable and worthwhile social attribute, but in human nature-'s paradoxical way, quite undervalued. Friendships can last...

It is arguably our most valuable and worthwhile social attribute, but in human nature's paradoxical way, quite undervalued. Friendships can last lifetimes but more frequently are subject to changing status, other interests (or self-interest), other companionship and so on. But the one place we can find it eternal and unalloyed – apart from Plato's World of Forms up in the sky -- is within a book.

Fervent and compulsive readers, across a wide spectrum of genres, know very well that true, long-lasting and even unlikely friendships can be found in the stories they have long-cherished (and re-read compulsively). And it is also worth realising that many of global literature's most famous protagonists would not survive long, prosper much, be as popular or even come to our knowledge without their friends.

Imagine if d'Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas' ‘The Three Musketeers’ had not met Athos, Porthos, or Aramis; or Sherlock Holmes without his long-time friend and biographer Dr John Watson, Harry Potter without Ron Weasley or Hermione Granger or Tintin without Captain Haddock.

This is not to say there are no betrayals, break-ups or misunderstandings in the world of fiction – if so, then a lot of crime, revenge, romance (especially those involving triangles) and more would not exist.

But, friendships, where they occur in this realm, are more key to the plot, character development and the protagonists' purposes, though they may not always be uneventful and solidly continuous.

There can be ruptures – as between Harry and Ron in ‘The Goblet of Fire’ and ‘The Deathly Hallows’, or the Tintin-Haddock arguments in ‘Tintin in Tibet’ or ‘Tintin and the Picaros’. There is often (a lot of) exasperation. As Dr Watson recounts in ‘The Valley of Fear’: "... but I'll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. 'Really, Holmes,' said I severely, 'you are a little trying at times'."

Friends may even drift apart – as happens in ‘The Three Musketeers’ sequel ‘Twenty Years After’ (but readily come together again as it subsequently shows), or may even find themselves working at cross-purposes – d'Artagnan-Porthos and Athos-Aramis are on opposite sides in this book but do reconcile and resume their friendship.

But beyond these famous examples, there are several others – perhaps lesser known – with some notable friendships. Let’s look at, say, half a dozen of them across various spheres, times and duration.

Ian Fleming's James Bond is a skilled, lone operator but even he has need for allies-cum-friends like Felix Leiter and Rene Mathis (in the books), but one of his outstanding associates was “Darko” Kerim Bey of ‘From Russia With Love’ (1957), who becomes more of a friend than colleague in their brief time together.

Head of Station T (Turkey), and thus drawn in as Bond comes to Istanbul to meet a defecting Russian, Kerim Bey is ruthlessly efficient – killing an enemy behind an attempt on his life himself and foiling most of Bond's pursuers – but also gregarious and fond of high living. As he says, his epitaph could be "This Man Died of Living Too Much". Unfortunately, his existence was limited to this one book.

If you think friendship here cannot be between opposite sexes (save Harry-Hermione or so), then do read Peter O' Donell's ‘Modesty Blaise’ series, comprising 11 novels and two short story collections spanning 1965-96. While rough-hewn Willie Garvin is gang leader-turned-freelance adventurer Modesty's trusted right-hand man in all her enterprises, he is also a close, platonic friend who regularly seeks her advice in various matters, both operational and personal. Even their enemies know that targeting only one of them will be lethal, because the other will make it his or her mission to ensure they regret it – permanently.

Another enduring friendship is between Omar Yussef Sirhan, the Bethlehem schoolteacher-turned-detective in Matt Beynon Rees's Palestine Quartet, and his PLO operative-turned-police chief Khamis Zeydan, who despite his prosthetic arm, saves his rather reckless friend in all their four outings – in Bethlehem itself, in Gaza, in Nablus and then in New York, while keeping up a level of badinage with him.

Then there are some unlikely friendships – between Yashim, a eunuch, and Ambassador of (then non-existent) Poland to the Ottoman Empire Stanislaw Palewski in Jason Goodwin's historical mystery quintet set in Istanbul of the 1820-30s; between Pekkala, the Tsarist investigator, and Major Kirov, his commisar minder-turned-admirer, in Stalinist Russia in Sam Eastland's seven-volume ‘Pekkala’ series; and several others that show that some desirable things only reach their ideal form in a fantasy world.

But those who deprecate this state should have taken a lesson from an old-world German diplomat who tells a Soviet agent in ‘Dark Star’, the second of Alan Furst's atmospheric World War II spy novels, when a sort of friendship or at least confluence of interests arises: "We are equals in this affair. If you don't want us, we don't want you".

Simple words, but hard to do in real life.

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