[In 1902 Saki followed up on his highly successful Alice in Wonderland parodies with a second series modelled on Rudyard Kipling’s short stories for children. They were first published in the Westminster Gazette as ‘The Political Jungle Book’ and later ‘Not-So Stories’ after Kipling’s ‘Just-So Stories’, which were published the same year.]
Mowgli the bare-limbed and immortal opened his eyes expectantly and spoke to the Other:
“I have told you of the Jungle and its laws. Tell me of the tangle that you call your political system.”
“Pardon me,” said the Other, “I never called it a system. Though perhaps,” he added, “it has fixed laws of an unobtrusive character.”
“But you must have a ruling Caste?”
“We are beginning to recognise the necessity, and one day no doubt we shall invent one. At present we are being looked after by a great course of politicians, some of whom will become statesmen in the course of time, if they don’t take up some useful employment in the meanwhile”
“Tell me,” said Mowgli, “how they grow into statesmen.”
“First, when they are about eighteen or twenty they read about Pitt and Burke and Talleyrand and other real people; that is their hopeful, enquiring stage, and it is often their best. Then most of them go into the Parrot House of party politics and hear nothing but parrot cries from one year to another.”
“What are the parrot cries?”
“Oh, they are too many to remember. ‘Unearned increment’, ‘Standard of living’, ‘Peace at any price’, ‘Union of hearts’, ‘Trade follows the flag’, ‘Fight to a finish’, ‘Back to the land’, ‘Food of the people’, ‘Efficiency with economy’ — that is the language in which the Parrot House thinks, and any time that you like to leave your wolf-pack and come and listen you will find it thinking that way still; the Parrot House always thinks aloud.”
Mowgli yawned. “Now tell me about the statesmen,” he said.
The Other considered.
“The least troublesome way of becoming a statesman is to marry, only of course you must marry the right people. The laws of this country only permit one wife at a time to each man, so you see it isn’t so simple as it sounds to become a statesman by marriage. Then an amiable, genial personality counts for a great deal; a drop of honey catches more flies, etc., which is an excellent counsel as long as you limit yourself to flies. Certainly there are men who force themselves to the front by strength of character and ability, but we are never quite sure whether we like that kind of statesman; as a rule it is inclined to be brusque and to say things which in our thinking moments we suspect to be true.”
“But,” said Mowgli, “the fittest must find his place when the need calls. So it is with us and it cannot be otherwise.”
“With us,” said the Other, “it can. For example, as far as can be known there is only one statesman in England with a talent for foreign affairs, and we keep him in India. No, that isn’t a paradox, it’s a habit. It means putting your trust in improvidence.”
Mowgli considered deeply. “And if any one of the men you have to depend on is lacking in grip or skill?” he asked.
“It is one of the laws of our tangle that a man is assumed to be competent till he has proved himself to be otherwise. And then —”
“And then,” broke in Mowgli, “in the wolf-pack he would be
torn to pieces.”
The Other gave him a grim chuckle. “We are more cruel. We let the department go to pieces”
“But if your headmen don’t take greater care than that in what they have to do how is it you keep them at the Council Rock? Have you no others?”
“We have, and that is just the reason. When there are murmurs for a change the Government whistles up the leaders of the Opposition and shows them to the people. That is usually all that has to be done. Listen, Mowgli, and I will show you how things lie with us. Follow me in your mind’s eye, taking Vladivostok, ‘the dominion of the East’, as a starting point, down from the Manchurian country, along the great rivers that empty themselves into the Yellow Sea, up into the highlands of Tibet, across the Indus and on to the Afghan Plateau, away over to the Persian Gulf, and along the Tigris to Baghdad. Yes, and through Turkey into the wild Balkan Mountains, and back with a sweep to the Red Sea coast and the rolling African wastes that lie beyond it. That is our jungle, where we must hunt and be hunted, and that is only a part of it. And as the world grows smaller and the empires grow bigger the hunting will become keener and hotter, and they will sleep best who sleep least. That is the law in your jungle, and it is the same in ours.
“And now follow me into our homeland and see how we grasp and weigh the lie of things. Every now and again the folk of some township or district hold a choosing; not one-tenth of them could give you a guess at the different races inhabiting Asia and where each fitted in. It is an unwritten book to them. But they are busy putting little crosses against the names of the candidates, and when those little crosses are counted that is the supreme thing in all our political purpose. The politicians scan the totals breathlessly, and you hear them say one to another: ’Compared with ‘92 we have increased by more than four hundred, and they have polled two hundred and fifty less.’ That is the thing that matters.”
“And you call that a political system?” said Mowgli.
“If you remember,” said the Other, “I didn’t.”
Mowgli the bare-limbed and immortal rose and stretched himself. “I think,” he said, “I will go back to the grey wolves.”
- William Pitt (‘the Younger’) 1759–1806, Prime Minister 1783–1801 and 1804–1806; Edmund Burke, Whig politician and conservative philosopher 1729–97; Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord 1754–1838, French statesman and diplomat whose long career stretched over the Revolution, the Napoleonic period and the Bourbon Restoration. ↩
- Baron Curzon of Kedleston, Conservative politician, who served as Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. ↩
‘A Jungle Story’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from Not-So Stories (public domain). Notes © 2017 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.