Always relevant … Hector Munro, who wrote under the pen name Saki. Photograph: Alamy
If only Saki – the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro – were still alive. The age of Trump needs his brutal dismantling of human stupidities. Despite a coterie of literary fans, Saki’s icy, perfectly constructed short stories have been relatively little read over the past 50 years – years of smug belief in endless progress – but his tales, by turns malevolent and macabre, may be due a revival in our new age of exigency.
An anniversary always helps, and Monday marks the centenary of his death – in the Battle of the Ancre, the fag end of the Battle of the Somme. Fag end really is the phrase, because, hunkered down in a shell crater with his fellow fusiliers, his last recorded words were “Put that bloody cigarette out!” Too late, sadly – the light had already attracted the attention of a German sniper. An end Saki would surely have appreciated: his stories often culminate with an unexpected, untimely death.
Saki shouldn’t even have been at the front. He was 43 when war broke out, too old to enlist. But a proud son of empire – he was born in British-ruled Burma to a father who was an inspector-general in the Indian imperial police –he joined up anyway, turning down a commission because he didn’t think soldiers should serve under an officer who had gained no military experience.
The imperial, high Tory side stands in stark contrast with his anarchistic temperament and pitch-black literary imagination, as exemplified in his numerous short stories and two novels. He was a glorious pyromaniac let loose in the genteel upper-middle-class Edwardian world he knew so well. In many of his stories, stuffy authority figures are set against forces of nature – polecats, hyenas, tigers. Even if they are not eaten, the humans rarely have the best of it.
One can be too reductive in tracing the links between a writer’s life and his work, but in Saki’s case it is impossible not to. His mother died after a collision with a runaway cow; he was brought up in a village in Devon by tyrannical aunts determined to beat some sense in to him; and, as a gay man in a post-Wildean age, he was forced to lead the closeted life of the outsider (the sexual significance of the squiggles in a notebook unearthed by one of his biographers have been much argued over).
Despite uneven popular appeal, Saki has had many devotees over the past century – Graham Greene, Noël Coward, PG Wodehouse, Roald Dahl. “In all literature, he was the first to employ successfully a wildly outrageous premise in order to make a serious point,” said Dahl, who wasn’t just influenced by Saki’s style but occasionally borrowed one of those outrageous premises, too. Among modern writers, Will Self is a champion, doing his bit to ensure a blue heritage plaque was installed outside Saki’s former flat in central London. “Saki’s stories are highly relevant to any society in which convention is confused with morality,” says Self, “and all societies confuse convention with morality, so he’ll always be relevant.”
But why “Saki”, I hear you ask? It is one of the mysteries about him – and his sister Ethel helpfully burned most of his papers after his death. There are two theories about the nom de plume: that it is taken from a cupbearer who appears in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, and that it is the name of a South American monkey which appears in one of his stories. A very Sakian choice.