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saki, hh munro

Happy Birthday, Saki (H. H. Munro), Edwardian Satirist

December 18, 2009
by Rachel Balik
A writer whose caustic humor was a trademark of his short fiction, Edwardian author H.H. Munro (better known as Saki) carved a subtle yet indelible place for himself in the literary canon. Comparable to great authors such as O. Henry and Rudyard Kipling, he worked as a journalist and fiction writer throughout his life.

Saki's Early Days

Saki was born Hector Hugh Munro to Scottish parents Charles Augustus Munro and his wife Mary on December 18, 1870, in Akyab, Burma (now Myanmar). Saki’s father was inspector-general of the Burma police force, but when his mother died in an accident, Hector and his siblings, Charles and Ethel, were sent back to England to be raised by aunts. The Literature Network biography describes these aunts as physically abusive. Saki did not enroll in an official school until age 12; prior to that, governesses educated the three children, and his relatively isolated childhood may have contributed to some of his works of fiction.

Upon entering adulthood, Saki followed in his father’s footsteps, heading to Burma to join the military police. Unfortunately, he became ill with malaria and had to return home to England, where he became a journalist.

Saki's Notable Accomplishments

Saki’s journalism career began as a satirist for the Westminster Gazette. But he soon left London and became a correspondent in the Balkans, and subsequently in Paris and Russia, which inspired his first book, “The Rise of the Russian Empire” (1900). While working as a journalist, Saki also published his first collection of short fiction, “Not-So-Stories,” in 1902. He continued to write fiction simultaneously with the news, and was extremely prolific during this time A complete list of his short stories is available on the Square Eye. Many can be read on the site, as all of Saki’s works are in the public domain. He also wrote plays and two novels, “The Unbearable Bassington” and “When William Came.”

Saki’s works are laced with mocking, often cruel, humor, and his stories often feature a nasty twist at the end. Like the fiction of Rudyard Kipling, many of Saki’s stories are intellectually available to children, but equally, if not more, enjoyable for adults; animal themes dominate several stories. His vein of humor has also been compared to Evelyn Waugh’s, and like Waugh, Saki was considered a conservative, as well as a great champion of the British Empire.

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic writes that Saki “associated the concepts of empire and nation with manly virtue.” His great conservatism was revealed in other ways, through opposition to the women’s suffragette movement and apparent anti-Semitism.

The Rest of the Story

So committed was he to Britain and the nobility of war, , Saki decided to enlist in the British army during World War I, even though he was in his 40s, far past the age when he was required to do so. He refused an officer’s commission and signed up to serve in the trenches, a shock to his readers, many of whom would have considered it beneath them. Hitchens writes that Saki enlisted out of hatred for socialist reactionaries, and his decision to enter the army at a low level was in fact an active protest against the antimilitarist movement.

Saki was in the army for two years, during which time he was promoted in rank to lance-sergeant. His biography on the Square Eye site notes that he felt he ought to learn to command by working his way up. Saki was killed by a sniper on November 13, 1916. Supposedly, his last words were, “Put that bloody cigarette out!”

Saki continues to be widely read. In 2007, BBC produced “Who Killed Mrs. De Ropp?” a movie based on three of his short stories, which combined live action and animation and featured Saki himself as a character.

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