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Saki (1870-1916) - pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro


Scottish-born writer whose stories satirize the Edwardian social scene, often in a macabre and cruel way. Munro's columns and short stories were published under the pen name "Saki," who was the cupbearer in The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam, an ancient Persian poem. There are also saki monkeys, found from the rainforests of South America. Munro died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

"A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanations." (from The Square Egg, 1924)

Saki was born Hector Hugh Munro in Akyab, Burma (now Myanmar), the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an inspector-general in the Burma police. Munro's mother, the former Mary Frances Mercer, died in 1872 – she was killed by a runaway cow in an English country lane. Munro was brought up in England with his brother Charles and sister Ethel by two aunts, Aunt Charlotte and Aunt Augusta, who hated each other and frequently used the birch and whip to disciple the children. "I think Aunt Augusta must have mesmerized us," Ethel later recalled, "the look in her dark eyes, added to the fury in her voice, and the uncertainty as to the punishment, used to make me shiver." Though Munro was an avid reader, most of his contributions to the children's newspaper, 'The Broadgate Paper', were drawings. His early favorites included Robinson Crusoe (1719), Lewis Carroll's famous Alice in Wondlerland books (1865, 1871), and Charles G. Leland's Johnnykin and the Goblin (1877)

Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and Bedford Grammar School. From 1887 he traveled with his family in France, Germany and Switzerland. In 1891 his father settled in Devon, where he worked as a teacher. In 1893 Munro joined the Burma police and adopted the view that those in the colonial service are true protectors of rural, traditional Englishness. Three years later he was back in England and started his career as a journalist, writing for the Westminster Gazette.

Munro's first and his only non-fiction book was The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900). This historical study, modelled upon Gibbon's famous The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, received with hostile reviews in America. It was followed in 1902 with a collection of short stories, Not-So-Stories. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post in the Balkans, Russia and Paris, and then returned to London. He settled in the rooms at 97 Mortimer Street, where he wrote most of his best known stories.

"Only the old and the clergy of Established churches know how to be flippant gracefully,'' commented Reginald; "which reminds me that in the Anglican Church in a certain foreign capital, which shall be nameless, I was present the other day when one of the junior chaplains was preaching in aid of distressed somethings or other, and he brought a really eloquent passage to a close with the remark, 'The tears of the afflicted, to what shall I liken them---to diamonds?' The other junior chaplain, who had been dozing out of professional jealousy, awoke with a start and asked hurriedly, 'Shall I play to diamonds, partner?' (from Reginald in Russia, 1910)

Munro's alternate history novella, Whe William Came, which appeared in 1913, portrayed what might happen if the German emperor conquered England. In spite of imposition of vulgar German middle-class tastes and socialism, the Hohenzollerns turn out the be excellent administrators and sportsmen, who share with the British a love of hunting and country sports, "the things most likely to keep Englishmen together on the land." At the end Boy Scouts boycott a parade in front of German nobility: "... in thousands of English homes throughout the land there were young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield." After the outbreak of World War I, although officially too old, Munro volunteered for the army as an ordinary soldier. This was a surprise to all of his elite admirers. During the encampment and training, one of his friends recalled, that he was "full of life, fun, and devilment". Munro argud that even world war was preferable to socialism.

Munro was killed by a sniper's bullet on November 14, 1916 in France, near Beaumont-Hamel, while sheltering in a shell crater. His last words, according to several sources, were: "Put that damned cigarette out!" Among the writers involved in the Battle of the Somme were also Robert Graves, who was wounded, and A.A. Milne, who contacted trench fever and was sent home. After Munro's death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood. Like her brother, Ethel never married.

Munro's best fables are often more macabre than Kipling's. His stories were full of witty sayings – such as "The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went." Sometimes they also included veiled references to homosexuality; the color green and the word "earnest" were used as codes in Saki's day. He often portrayed eccentric characters; his upper class dandies were familiar from Oscar Wilde's plays, but because Wilde's name lay under a ban, he was never eager to acknowledge this literary debt. Whether Munro was a practicing homosexual, like Wilde, or not, he kept it private.  The Unbearable Bassington (1912) contained the figure of Comus Bassington, one of his most homoerotic protagonists. 

Among Saki's most frequently anthologized short stories is 'Tobermory,' in which a cat, who has seen too much scandal through country house windows, learns to talk and starts to repeat the guests' vicious comments about each other. 'The Open Window' and 'The Story-Teller' were told in the frame of a story within a story. In the latter an aunt tells a "proper", predictable story to restless, annoying children, whilst a barchelor, perhaps Munro's sardonic alter ego, manages to shock the aunt with his improper fairy tale, which on the other hand delights the children. In 'Sredni Vashtar' from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) a young boy makes an idol of his illicit pet ferret. It kills his oppressive cousin and guardian, Mrs. Van De Ropp, allegedly modelled on Saki's aunt Augusta. "Sredni Vashtar went forth, / His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth / white were. / His enemies called to peace, but he brought / them death. / Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful." This tale has been made into a film several times in different styles.

Although Saki was unmistakably a misogynist, anti-Semite, and reactionary, he did not take himself too seriously. Many times his target was the women's suffrage movement. For decades his stories, "true enough to be interesting and not true enough to be tiresome", were considered ideal reading for schoolboys. However, he did not have any interest in safeguarding certain aspects Edwardian culture. Often he satirized its strict discipline, of which corporal punishment was an integral part. "Saki writes like an enemy, " said V.S. Pritchett later. "Society has bored him to the point of murder. Out laughter is only a note or two short of a scream of fear." In 'Laura' the title character is first reincarnated as a destructive otter after her death, and then as a naked brown Nubian boy.

Reginald and Clovis, two of Saki's most famous heroes, were portrayed in a series of stories in which the two soul mates of Wilhelm Busch's Max and Moritz shock the conventional world or leave the reader to read between the lines. When Amabel asks Reginald's help to supervise "the annual outing of the bucolic infants who composed the local choir", Reginald's eyes start to shine "with the dangerous enthusiasm of a convert." Once Reginald states: "People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die."

For further reading: The unbearable Saki: The Work of H.H. Munro by Sandie Byrne (2007); St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); The Penquin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. by Jack Sullivan (1986); Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro by A.J. Langguth (1981); Saki by G.H. Gillen (1969); The Satire of Saki by G.J. Spears (1963)

Selected works:

  • The Rise of the Russian Empire, 1900
  • The Not So Stories, 1902
  • The Westminster Alice, 1902 (with F. Carruthers Gould)
  • Reginald, 1904
  • Reginald in Russia, 1910
  • The Chronicles of Clovis, 1911
  • The Unbearable Bassington, 1912
  • When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, 1913
  • Beasts and Super-Beasts, 1914
  • The East Wing, 1914 (play, in Lucas' Annual)
  • The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, 1919
  • The Square Egg and Other Sketches, 1924
  • The Watched Pot, 1924 (play, with Cyril Maude)
  • The Works of Saki, 1926-27 (8 vols.)
  • Collected Stories, 1930
  • Novels and Plays, 1933
  • The Miracle-Merchant, 1934 (in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8)
  • The Best of Saki, 1950 (edited by Graham Greene)
  • The Bodley Head Saki, 1963 (introduction by J.W. Lambert)
  • Saki, 1981 (by A.J. Langguth, includes six uncollected stories)
  • The Complete Saki, 1976 (as The Penguin Complete Saki, 1982)
  • Short Stories, 1976 (edited by John Letts)
  • The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, and Other Stories, 1995
  • The Complete Works of Saki, 2006 (introduction by Adam Rovner)
  • Comic sans Saki, 2009 (edited by Richard Grayson)
  • Improper Stories, 2010

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