The pages of the Tintin children's comic books are not where you would expect to find drug dealers cast in a favorable light. But in Cigars of the Pharaoh, our cowlicked protagonist owes his life to a passing sea captain, who rescues him and his faithful fox terrier Snowy from the Red Sea, into which they have been thrown overboard. That captain was based on the real-life French adventurer, hashish smuggler and sometime opium grower Henry de Monfreid and the recent reissue of De Monfreid's beguiling 1933 memoir Hashish: A Smuggler's Tale is a cause for rejoicing among all those who love briny confessionals and barroom brags. De Monfreid was a man who condemned shoes as "cursed things," and his arch and irresistible narrative is appropriately free-spirited. It has textures of sea-roving picaresques from The Odyssey to Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as of the journals of European explorers in Africa and Arabia, from Burton to Livingstone and T.E. Lawrence.
The son of an artist, and a consummate upper-class drifter of romantic bent, De Monfreid died in 1974 at the age of 95. In the first half of his life, he traded coffee, dived for pearls, smuggled arms and trafficked hashish off the coasts of East Africa and southern Arabia. Upon his return to France, he began a second career as a highly prolific author, drawing on his experiences to produce more than 60 works of fiction, biography, history and journalism. He even dabbled in painting and photography.
Like all the best drug yarns, Hashish has a whiff of incredibility without being any less enjoyable for it. The schema is plausible enough. Failure to sell 300 tons of trocas (or sea-snail shells), which De Monfreid had fished from the reefs of Eritrea, leaves him desperate for cash. One night, he overhears a midshipman talk about the lucrative market for hashish in Egypt, and De Monfreid resolves to head for Greece where the "bringer of dreams" was cultivated and packaged for sale then grease some palms and have 1,300 lbs. (600 kg) shipped to Djibouti, whence he'd ferry the hashish in his dhow up the Red Sea to Suez. Thus was a drug smuggler born.
In the details, however, De Monfreid is as unreliable as a $20 gram of weed. He claims, for instance, never to have heard of hashish prior to commencing his trade in it. This is nonsense. It was the stuff of daily social intercourse in North Africa at the time. And how could an erudite, well-traveled Frenchman who alludes throughout his book to canonical authors and works from Homer to Boccaccio to fellow French writers like Dumas and Molière not have been familiar with Baudelaire's 19th century writings about drugs, hashish in particular? One can only speculate that De Monfreid's feigned innocence is a raconteur's device, making his descent into the netherworld of drug smuggling all the more delicious because it is happening to a drug naïf.
Modern readers will also be obliged to overlook De Monfreid's unabashed racism and brusque, culturally superior attitude, which were both products of their time. On a ship from Marseilles to Greece, for example, De Monfreid scowls at a throng of Russian peasants, whom he finds "as uncouth and primitive as the Somali Bedouins." And the book is further marred by the same sort of excessive nautical argot (starboard this, lateen that) that makes Moby Dick such a tough sea of words to oar through. But whenever De Monfreid reaches land and begins to describe the gallery of rogues and brutes and generally weird people he claims to meet on his journeys, the book can spellbind.
De Monfreid meets, among others, an imprisoned spy (a "venomous reptile") whose escape he enables and later regrets; a Chinese trepang trader on a deserted island; a metrosexual polyglot butler; a Bedouin shouldering a Remington; a priest who manufactures hashish; and a hashish distributor who operates from an undertaker's office. He sketches all the misfits he encounters with anthropological and sartorial precision, colorfully and poetically noting the red tarboosh of a Tigrean guard; the "sublime crease" of a servant's "beautiful putty trousers"; and a Greek engineer's soiled celluloid collar, "yellow and clouded as a clay pipe."
But it is the complex De Monfreid who steals the show, of course. His voice shifting easily from waggishness to bristling sarcasm to weighty understatement is so dynamic that it ultimately doesn't matter whether he is using it in the service of fact or fiction. De Monfreid was at once a wild man and a philosophe, whose tender soliloquies on the joys of an unfettered life at sea, with nothing but the naked stars above, retain an immense power to seduce. While Hashish may be an acutely self-conscious literary artifact, it is also a singular self-portrait of a defiant spirit, who spurned "the slavery of some dreary job" and "the frivolous and treacherous world" of conventionality. The book had almost drowned in obscurity. Now it has resurfaced to beguile a whole new generation of readers.