Category Archives: Historical fiction

The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Englishman’s Boy is a 1997 work by Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe, addressing issues relating to the settlement of the American and Canadian West and the myths it gave rise to. The novel follows two narrative strands: one in 1873, the other (narrated restrospectively in 1953) 50 years later in 1923 Hollywood. It is a novel of history, myth, and the role of both in shaping nations. Vanderhaeghe here deals in new territories, geographic and psychological, including the new territory of film, a medium with a profoundly democratic appeal and with an ability to create a new type of narrative – a new mythology.

The novel opens in my view fairly weakly, with two Indian horse thieves (one almost stereotypically wise compared to the white men he steals from) taking twenty horses from a group of sleeping men. The scene itself is well painted, Vanderhaeghe is a master at describing cold landscapes, the still of the night, but the patient Indian essentially horse-whispering while the oblivious Whites slept for me bordered on cliche.

Vanderhaeghe then surprised me, moving briefly into 1953 and then back to 1923, as follows:

I typed four names. Damon Ira Chance. Denis Fitzimmons. Rachel Gold. Shorty McAdoo. I sat and stared at their names for some minutes, then I typed a fifth, my own. Harry Vincent.
I did not know how to continue. It’s true that once I was a writer of a sort, but for thirty years I’ve written nothing longer than a grocery list, a letter. I went to the window. From there I could see the South Saskatchewan River, the frozen jigsaw pieces bumping sluggishly downstream, the cold, black water streaming between them. A month ago, when the ice still held, a stranger to this city would have had no idea which way the river ran. But now, the movement of the knotted ice, of the swirling debris, makes it plain.
So begin, I told myself.

History is calling it a day. Roman legionaries tramp the street accompanied by Joseph and Mary, while a hired nurse in uniform totes the Baby Jesus. Ladies-in-waiting from the court of the Virgin Queen trail the Holy Family, tits cinched flat under Elizabethan bodices sheer as the face of a cliff. A flock of parrot-plumed Aztecs are hard on their heels. Last of all, three frostbitten veterans of Valley Forge drag flintlocks on the asphalt roadway.

This is bravura stuff. We have the cast introduced, the five central characters who will drive the 1923 narrative. We have the imagery of the cold, the ice, we know that whatever happens in 1923 it will not end well for Harry, his amibitions of becoming a screenwriter (rather than a mere title-card writer) will end with him no longer being a writer at all. So too we have myth and history, the extras leaving the lot, a mishmash of dreams of what was. Many of the novel’s key themes are right there, in those two short paragraphs.

Vincent is called before studio boss Chance, an unprecedented interview given Chance’s reclusivity and Vincent’s junior status. We learn that Chance wants to make a new sort of film, to create a new American myth, and that to do so he wants access to the memories of an aged extra who was there in the Old West and who lived the truth Chance wants on celluloid. Chance sends Vincent to track down that old extra, Shorty McAdoo, but McAdoo’s experiences ended in tragedy and horror and he has no wish to revist those times or see his memories turned into fiction.

On the way to all this, however, Vanderhaeghe mixes his undoubted talent for description with several pages of blatant infodumping. It is explained who Fatty Arbuckle was and what happened to him, so showing the fickle nature of fame in early Hollywood. There is more than than two consecutive pages describing the life and work of the hugely influential director DW Griffith, a section which opens with the to me mystifying remark that “I don’t suspect the name [Griffith] means much to anyone now, except the most avid film buffs.” Vanderhaeghe simply spends too long lecturing the reader here for my tastes, after the first 30 pages or so this thankfully ceases and Vanderhaeghe instead trusts his own considerable talents to communicate the period to us, organically, within the writing.

The 1923 chapters alternate with the 1873 chapters, which tell the tale of the eponymous Englishman’s Boy – a young man who has found service in the pay of an English big game hunter and who on that man’s death joins a party of men tracking the Indian horse thieves. The expedition heads North, over the border into Canada and into lands to which no law extends, the “Whoop-Up Country” as it was apparently known, populaced by Indians, traders, outlaws and half-breeds. From the interviews with McAdoo in 1923, and from the nature of the men on the expedition, we know that like the career of Harry Vincent this will not end well.

Unusually, both storylines are equally interesting and entertaining. Vincent’s search for McAdoo, their strained interviews, Chance’s dream of being the next (but greater) Griffith and of uniting America through the medium of film, this is fascinating stuff. So too is the expedition the Englishman’s boy joins, led by the vicious Hardwick and with its own cast of colourful yet credible hard men of the Old West. The expedition travels through harsh conditions and landscape, fording rivers, dealing with natives and its own internal tensions. Vanderhaeghe conjures up the vast and empty landscape, the small band crossing it, with real skill.

Part of what Vanderhaeghe is bringing out of course, with these two doomed enterprises (and of course we know that no great Western movie did create a new American myth), is the youth of America. The 1873 expedition, alone in all that emptiness, is just fifty years before the bustling new Hollywood of 1923 in which the rules of a new art are being created on an almost daily basis. 1953, when the novel is ostensibly written, is itself within the lifetime of a man who met and talked with a member of that expedition. The timeframes are brief, the transformation of America huge, it is a country with a past so recent it is almost yesterday.

For Damon Ira Chance, this lack of history is a challenge, a call to arms. America is too young, too new, to be a real nation. It lacks myth. It lacks a voice of its own. In cinema, the aptly named Chance sees an opportunity to change that. Here Chance speaks to Vincent of his first time seeing a movie, and his sudden understanding of the power of this new medium:

When I left that nickelodeon, I took something important away with me. The knowledge that the new century was going to be a century governed by images, that the spirit of the age would express itself in an endless train of images, one following upon the other with the speed of the steam locomotive that was the darling of the last century and symbolised all its aspirations.

America is not the only nation without yet a true identity of its own. Canada too is in question. It’s history equally short, it’s voice equally unfound and cinema is America’s answer, not Canada’s. Here Vincent explains to his best friend, Jewish head writer Rachel Gold, why he is working for Chance and why he believes in his project of the Great American Film:

‘… Immigrants can’t read English. Whitman is for the elite. But everybody goes to the movies. It’s the movies that have the chance of making everybody – the immigrant, the backwoods Kentuckian, the New York cab driver, maybe even the Ivy League Professor – all feel the same thing, feel what it means to be an American. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are all very well, but constitutions make states, they don’t make a people.’
“And you’re a Canadian Harry. So why is a Canadian so concerned about teaching Americans how to be American?’
‘Because I chose this place. And I’m not the only one in Hollywood. America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, was born in Toronto; Louis B. Mayer came from Saint John, New Brunswick; Mack Sennett was raised in Quebec. Canada isn’t a country at all, it’s simply geography. There’s no emotion there, not the kind that Chance is talking about. There are no Whitmans, no Twains, no Cranes. Half the English Canadians wish they were really English, and the other half wish they were Americans….’

In both countries, the frontier has been conquered, but the countries built on it remain unfinished. Vincent is sucked into Chance’s vision, wants to be part of it. He looks to Chance, his larger and more colourful acquaintance, as a man who can lend purpose to his own lack of direction. Chance sees Vincent as a fellow spirit, offers him the chance to write the new movie’s script, takes him into his confidence.

Both stories progress in many ways as one would expect, I will not go into plot here but it is hardly a spoiler to say that Vincent discovers that Chance may not be wholly rational, that his vision of America may not ultimately be one that Vincent will want to be part of, that the truth learnt from McAdoo may not be what Chance wishes it to be. Similarly, the expedition of which the Englishman’s boy is part is not one that is likely to return successfully with the guilty punished and the innocent spared. History at the end it is simply what happens, myth what we tell ourselves about it afterwards.

The Englishman’s Boy is not a flawless novel. The early infodumps, the depictions of Indians in the few scenes where they have their own narrative voice (one scene even implies an ability to see the future in dreams, though thankfully it does not make the truth of such a gift the only possible interpretation), the curious conceit that throughout the entire 1873 expedition nobody ever seems to think to ask the Englishman’s boy’s name and so he is referred to by that rather clumsy title for the entire novel, all this is problematic.

All the above problems are though but a small part of the novel. Vanderhaeghe’s feel for the collision of truth and dreams, for the bloody consequences of conviction, for the reality of a literally lawless country, all this is well captured. When violence erupts, it is convincing. Vanderhaeghe brings early Hollywood, it’s madness and vision and sheer sense of possibility, to life.

Above all, Vanderhaeghe displays a genuine gift for description. The detail of his internal locations is reminiscent of that in much 19th Century literature, sufficient to create an almost cinematic image. Where he truly shines though is with landscape, wilderness, which he brings impressively to life:

… they walked their horses on under an impassive sky dappled with handfuls of torn white cloud flying before the wind like cottonwood fluff. Men and horses blinking in and out of the eye of the sun, cloud shadows overtaking and ecompassing them and racing on, patches of darkness sailing over the billowing grass like blue boats running before a storm. Anetelope and mule-tail, prairie chickens and jack-rabbits, coyotes and fox and grouse started out of the sage, flashed across the emptiness at their approach.

The Englishman’s Boy is just over 400 pages long. In that length it packs a story of Hollywood hubris, an ill-fated expedition into the badlands of 19th Century Canada, an Indian massacre and a meditation on the nature of myth as a way of interpreting the messy past. It is, the problems mentioned above aside, extremely well written and is worth reading for the evocation of place and time alone. Vanderhaeghe was recommended to me by Kevin of http://www.kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com, and it is a recommendation I appreciate. I shall be ordering The Last Crossing, another of Vanderhaeghe’s thoughtful westerns, and look forward to reading it in due course.

The Englishman’s Boy

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Filed under Canadian fiction, Historical fiction, Vanderhaeghe, Guy, Westerns

Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

Alan Furst is a critically regarded, but not I think well known, writer of espionage novels set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. His best known point of comparison would be John Le Carre, and for those lacking patience to read further it’s fair to say that if you have a fondness for Le Carre you will likely enjoy Furst, and if not, likely not. Graham Greene is also plainly a strong influence on Furst’s work, as is Joseph Roth and Joseph Conrad (I’m told, I’ve not yet read Conrad).

The Polish Officer then is the third in a loosely linked series of novels set in wartime Europe. The novels are connected in that characters in one work may appear in others and in certain locations appearing in each. They also share a consistent focus on historical accuracy, realism and a certain bleak tone in keeping with this frankly rather bleak period. I have previously read Dark Star, second of the sequence, but not Night Soldiers, the first. As best I can tell, there is no consequence to the order in which the novels are read, though knowing now there is a sequence I shall likely follow it.

The Polish Officer opens with the German invasion of Poland, and with local intelligence officers pressed by necessity into service quite out of line with their training and work to date. One, a cartographer of minor aristocratic descent by the name of de Milja, becomes an active agent responsible for a number of operations which the book details – some successful, some not. A sense of fatalism is pervasive, soldiers and spies both are routinely sent on missions near certain to kill them, but continue from patriotism, from a desire for revenge or simply from a lack of better alternative. As matters open, de Milja must smuggle Poland’s gold reserves out of the country by train so as to ensure the government in exile remains in funds:

There were two people waiting for de Milja under the Dimek Street bridge: his former commander, a white-moustached major of impeccable manners and impeccable stupidity, serving out his time until retirement while his assistant did all the work, and de Milja’s former aide, Sublieutenant Nowak, who would serve as his adjutant on the journey south.
The major shook de Milja’s hand hard, his voice taught with emotion. ‘I know you’ll do well,’ he said. ‘As for me, I am returning to my unit. They are holding a line for me at the Bzura river.’ It was a death sentence and they both knew it. ‘Good luck sir,’ de Milja said, and saluted formally. The major returned the salute and disappeared onto a crowd of people on the train.

The book traces de Miljas career as a spy, in a period covering the first two or three years of the war, in which the German advance seemed unstoppable and country after country fall before their forces. Furst is tremendous at capturing the spirit of the time, most of all the fact now often forgotten that in this period victory for the allies did not look at all certain. With hindsight today, we tend to picture the second world war as a struggle against tyranny and extraordinary human evil. A war hard fought, but in which good finally triumphed. Furst’s novel has none of that sentiment, that moral reassurance, the war here is viciously fought, victory looks extremely doubtful and men and women both die fighting a foe which seems quite overwhelming.

Along with de Milja, we spend time in occupied Warsaw and Paris, we see London briefly and we see the frozen forests of the Ukraine as the Germans finally invade Russia, in the closing section of the novel. After that point of course, German invincibility was exposed as a myth and the tone of the war changed, after that point then is outside the scope of this novel which is about the fight before the anticipation of success.

Furst is excellent on the realities of life under occupation, the knocks on the door, the risk of looking the wrong way at the wrong person, the fear of reprisals for acts against the occupiers. The Germans plan to reduce the Poles to a slave race, intelligence gathered shows that the Poles are seen as undermen, subhumans who in future will have no need of traits such as literacy or speech beyond the grunt. Morale is maintained by missions in which Polish resistance officers fake leaflet drops from British aircraft promising British support coming soon to save Poland, although they know that no such planes or support are underway. Jokes speak of how pessimists learn German, optimists English and realists Russian. Returning from a brief trip to Romania:

On the train back to Warsaw he made a mistake.

A uniformed NKVD guard looked through his documents, reading with a slow index finger on each word, then handed them back silently. He got out of Rovno on a dawn train to Brzesc, near the east bank of the river that formed the dividing line between Russian and German occupation forces. On the train, two men in overcoats; one of them stared at him and, foolishly, he stared back. Then realised what he’d done and looked away. At the very last instant. He could see from the posture of the man – his age, his build – that he was somebody, likely civilian NKVD, and was about to make a point of it.
[The Russian has to leave the train, decides to get back on but is pulled away by his companion who doesn’t want to waste time.]
From the corner of his eye, de Milja could see the Russian as he glanced back one last time. He was red in the face. The man, de Milja knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, had intended to kill him.

De Milja’s missions are often remarkably prosaic, much time is spent on painstaking preparation, the leaflet drop mentioned above needing a plane, a pilot, a printer, each of which must be sourced and the obtaining of any of which could lead to betrayal and death for all concerned. Those captured are interrogated, tortured, always eventually tell all they know and always eventually are executed. Those who betray the resistance, or who are suspected of it, face little better fate being executed with bullets to the head under railway bridges, the passing trains masking the noise.

De Milja pays for discarded oily rags, to assess the quality of oil being issued to German armoured troops, for information on wool weight, to see if heavier coats are being made, this intelligence together revealing whether an invasion of Russia is planned. Much of de Milja’s work is focused on the seemingly prosaic:

Fedin shrugged. War was logistics. You got your infantry extra socks, they marched another thirty miles.

As the novel continues, de Milja is moved to occupied Paris, where he spies on barge movements to learn about plans to invade Britain, creates a network of radio-telegraph operators who risk capture each time they communicate with London, the Germans having their own technicians who listen for such broadcasts and use their own techniques for locating the broadcast source if it continues too long. De Milja becomes involved in direct operations against the planned invasion, Operation Sealion, he recruits local patriots or the merely disgruntled and most of them do not survive.

Again, Furst’s eye for life in an occupied city is tremendous, absurdities such as the German insistence that Paris be open for business so that it’s troops can be sent there as a reward for active service, restaurants and bars serving the conquerors, affairs between people who are not suited to each other but who are at least alive and available. All this is brought out, people scheme, hide, profit, collude and resist and during it all the German advance continues. Vehicles destroyed quickly repaired, men killed quickly replaced, British resistance looking surely doomed.

The Polish Officer is rich then in its sense of time, of place, of the realities of resistance and the terrible choices forced upon people in times of war. Where it is perhaps less strong is in its characterisation, we see de Milja’s relationship with his mentally ill wife, with his father, with women he becomes involved with and fellow operatives he works alongside, but I at least did not get a deep sense of de Milja himself. He is portrayed as an intelligent man, deeply fatalistic and fully expecting not to survive the war, fighting because that is all that is left to do, and because he is good at what he does and has not died yet. It is a convincing portrait, but it lacks the subtlety of depiction that I found in Dark Star whose protagonist Andre Szara – a Pravda journalist – is a much more interesting and complex individual. De Milja is in a sense a vehicle through which we visit the past, his own personality often intentionally suppressed while he assumes the identities of others, but also I think suppressed so that the reader can better experience directly the world de Milja inhabits.

On the terrace of the Dragomir Niculescu restaurant, a man at leisure -or perhaps he simply has no place to go. A respectable gentleman, one would have to say. The suit not new of course. The shirt a particular colour, like wheat meal, that comes from washing in the sink and drying on a radiator. The posture proud, but maybe, if you looked carefully, just a little lost. Not defeated, nothing that drastic. Haven’t we all had a moment of difficulty, a temporary reversal? Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

Ultimately, this is an intelligent and rewarding work by an author fully conversant with his material and with a genuine knack for communicating fear, tension and the the small details of the world he has chosen to write about. Warsaw, Paris, London, the Ukraine, all convince, Furst knows his period and knows the war and although I did not enjoy The Polish Officer quite as much as I did Dark Star it was nonetheless definitely a rewarding read and I fully intend to read others by him.

The Polish Officer. Unfortunately, the current covers are rather bland, following a recent publishing trend to show shadowy figures in fog bound Central European landscapes, making a vast array of diverse books all look like they are much of a muchness. A shame, but if the cover fails to persuade, at least the contents do.

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Filed under Furst, Alan, Historical fiction, Military fiction, Spy Fiction

Paradise Lost

Zanzibar is the third novel of English born (but African raised) novelist Giles Foden, most famous for his first novel The Last King of Scotland, a marvellous study of the seductive power of evil (and indeed of power itself) explored through the relationship of a young Scottish doctor and the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Foden followed The Last King of Scotland with a second historical novel, Ladysmith, set during the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 and based in part on letters written by Foden’s own great-grandfather. Both novels involved considerable use of actual historical personalities, in the case of Ladysmith often before they were well known (Churchill and Ghandi as young men, among others).

Ladysmith, for the curious, is much more a novel about the effects of war on those living through it, than it is a novel about the practice of war itself. It is not, in other words, a military novel.

Zanzibar is also set in Africa, here drawing on Foden’s experiences as a journalist in Tanzania covering the 1998 US Embassy bombings. As such, unlike the previous two works it is not a historical novel, being written in the main between 1999 and 2001, published in 2002 and set in 1998. It also addresses much more contemporary issues than Foden’s other works, addressing in particular the problem of global terrorism.

Zanzibar is a remarkably prophetic novel, featuring both Al-Quaeda and more specifically Bin Ladin (aka Bin Laden) as an active and serious threat to the US. It is necessary, when reading this novel, to recall that the bulk of it was written prior to 9/11 (though published afterwards). It is not a reaction to those events, but rather the product of genuine scholarship which took seriously a threat which the general public had at the time of writing little awareness of.

Unfortunately, it’s also for me by far the least successful of Giles Foden’s novels, straddling rather uncomfortably the line between literary fiction and thriller without therefore quite doing justice to either. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its merits, but I would say that if you have read no Foden then this wouldn’t be where I would suggest starting.

Zanzibar essentially is the story of the bombing of the US Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. It tells this story through multiple narrative perspectives. Jack Queller, a retired and embittered former CIA black ops veteran. Nick Karolides, a young Greek-American marine biologist sent to Zanzibar as part of a US government conservation program. Khaled Al-Khidr, a young man from Zanzibar who has been recruited and trained by Al-Quaeda and is struggling to reconcile his commitment to that cause with his understanding of the teachings of Islam and its message of peace and social justice. Foden is aware of the resonances of the name Al-Khidr, being also a figure from Islamic myth of a Promethean spirit which brings understanding to mankind. Last is Miranda Powers, a recent graduate of the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Through these characters, the usual omnipotent authorial voice and a cast of various lesser characters (often not terribly interestingly drawn) we explore the conflict between the US and Al-Quaeda, the complex history of their relationship including early US support as part of anti-Soviet policy, the impact of foreign exploitation on Africa, the problems of Africa both home-grown and externally sourced, the myth of paradise (both literally as in the paradise promised to the Al-Quaeda “martyrs” and metaphorically with Zanzibar itself imagined as a possible paradise on Earth, which it quite conspicuously fails to be).

There’s a lot of content then, in a novel that clocks in at just under 400 pages. All that and we have too a love story between Nick and Miranda, internal US intelligence struggles between Queller and an FBI rival, Al-Khidr’s training and increasing doubts about his mission and the story of conservation efforts in Zanzibar and in particular the difficulties faced by turtles in struggling to reproduce successfully. Phew!

Unsurprisingly, some elements work better than others. More to the point, some narrative threads work better than others. Jack Queller is a wholly stock character, the disillusioned spook whose warnings of the real threat are ignored by his bureaucratic masters. I would see him as being played by Harrison Ford in the movie most likely. Miranda Powers is a credible enough character, but as a hard working and conscientious young woman with ambition but a lack of fulfilling personal life I just didn’t find much there to really grab my interest or engage with (naturally, she’s beautiful, young female agents in thrillers tend to be I suppose).

Nick Karolides is better, although not that interesting in himself his issues with his mother who has become part of a fundamentalist Christian group with cult-like overtones, his problems with local bureaucracy and corruption, the conflict he faces between protecting wildlife and avoiding becoming himself a target for local poachers and fishermen, all this has some interest. Khaled Al-Khidr is easily the most rewarding character, his desire to be a loyal Jihadi and his barely suppressed realisation that he may not be working for the good of his faith at all making him surprisingly sympathetic (indeed, possibly the most sympathetic character in the novel).

At times, Foden brings it all off. The build-up to the terrible impact of the bombing (the event itself powerfully described by Foden) is carefully paced with the various actors in the drama living independently of each other and with Foden cutting from one to the other to good effect. At its best, this leads to a skilful sequence where Jack Queller is one of the speakers at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s graduation day for new agents, and Foden alternates between Al-Khidr receiving an audience with Bin Ladin and Miranda Powers hearing the wisdom of those more experienced than her before she enters the world. Al-Khidr and Powers each hear the rhetoric of their own side, each takes part in their own rituals (“God bless America!”, “Praise belong to Allah, the Lord of all Being, the All-merciful, the All-compassionate, the Master of the Day of Doom.”), each is being prepared to perform the duties their organisations expect of them. To his credit, Foden does not fall into the trap of making some facile point of equivalence here, rather he builds a sense of coming conflict while maintaining a sense of underlying common humanity.

Foden also manages to a degree to combine the two novelistic forms in his use of description. Early on in the novel, he uses lush descriptive text, moving to terser but still evocative descriptions later. This struck me as a demand of the thriller, albeit one which here didn’t work too badly (although I thought the early descriptions in places possibly over the top for his intended genre). Consider the following two passages from different sections of the novel:

It was, considering the state of Florida, the kind of day when the sky might be glad to see itself anew on the sea beach – in the silvery surface of the water, in mother-of-pearl, in gum foil even.

Standing on white stone plinths raised above the quays, a pair of ancient Portuguese cannon guarded the entrance to the harbour. On both sides fishermen were releasing their catch – tuna, kingfish, mullet, shrimp and lobster, all glistening in the bright sunlight as they slithered from their nets into low wooden pens set out on the flagstones.

Although I do not personally much like the first passage quoted above (I find it overwritten, and on first read I was slightly incredulous at the idea that “the sky might be glad to see itself”), it is clearly a different sort of descriptive prose than that used in the second. Equally, an early description of a coral reef as a “cathedral of light” is poetic, rather than prosaic and the very first chapter in which Al-Khidr enjoys a rare sighting of a turtle laying its eggs but returns home to horror is skilfully drawn and gentle in tone. More unfortunate in terms of description is the passage where Miranda observes “The town didn’t conform to how she had imagined Zanzibar, which was, well – long white beach, spread of palms at the water’s edge, etc.”, an observation which actually works well as written but which through no fault of Foden’s jars rather with the UK cover which consists of a rather nice picture of a long white beach with spread of palms at the water’s edge.

However, the needs of the combine to good effect. A thriller requires a final confrontation, a literary novel about disparate factions and competing interests does not. Since this is, in part, a thriller it does include the obligatory chase scene and final face-off which utterly stretched my credulity, the desire earlier to tell the story through a mosaic of experiences giving way to the need to have people run about and point guns at each other. The whole end sequence of the novel is deeply cinematic, and thus distinctly at odds with the tone of much of the earlier parts.

The novel also contains frequent information dumps of a sort that tends to be rare in literary fiction. The passage above in which the sky sees itself comes shortly after a lengthy digression on the historic origins of the concept of April Fool’s Day, the relevance of which (it lies in the history of Islam and the West) I could see but which still felt like an infodump for all that (and, in all honesty, an unnecessary one). Jack Queller is all too prone to reflections on the history of US involvement with Al Quaeda or on past involvements in Afghanistan and it is quite evident these are simply a way of communicating needed background to the reader.

When it works, the novel works well. Foden is a skilled writer, he has intelligent things to say. The paradise Al-Khidr is willing to kill for, and that he comes to fear may be barred to him if he does as his chosen masters bid him; the paradise on earth that Nick and Miranda seek, in Zanzibar and in each other, the compromise and reality of both Island and relationship; the seductive danger that these disparate visions possess and their ability to prevent the achievement of real happiness in the here and now; these are all interesting themes that are well developed. It’s just a shame that with all this we have characters like Queller or Zayn (Al-Khidr’s controller in Al-Quaeda) who are stock figures from a thousand Hollywood action movies and who bring with them all the tired banalities of the more workmanlike of those films.

Equally, Foden has cogent points to make on the attractions of fundamentalism (Christian, Islamic, even that of Hari Krishna devotees at airports) or on the exploitation of Africa (the popobawa, a mythical white-skinned Vampire, is referred to on several occasions), but these are not as developed as they could be and if less space were needed for scenes of sneaking past Islamicist armed guards possibly the parallels with Nick’s mother could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Foden does bring Africa to life, he is at his best (in all his novels really) when he writes of it and of the landscape, the people and the challenges. Foden is tremendous as ever on the lure of ideology and on the ability of people of good conscience to find themselves engaged in terrible acts. Foden’s background in historical fiction allows him to effectively ground this work precisely in 1998 through the use of often-present but never intrusive news reports on the Ken Starr investigation into Clinton. All this is to the good. But while reading it it’s all too easy to imagine the film, in which Foden’s strengths as a writer could be dispensed with but his depictions of evil Jihadis and the good Americans who fight them could be presented in all its simplicity, a simplicity so much at odds with so much else in the work.

Foden’s fourth book was non-fiction, if he returns to fiction I will likely return to him as he has written two very good novels and this one has much in it that shows his talents remain. I hope, however, that in future he contents himself with being a good writer in the admittedly poorly remunerated field of literary fiction and leaves thrillers to those better suited to them. Like many genres, thrillers looks easy to write, but tight plotting and pacing is no easier than nuanced emotion or precise language and it is not often those disparate abilities are combined in one writer.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/showbook.php?id=0571205178

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Filed under Foden, Giles, Historical fiction, UK fiction

Spanish fury

Arturo Pérez-Reverte is probably Spain’s most successful contemporary writer, hugely popular in his home country and widely translated outside it. He is perhaps best known outside Spain for his contemporary thrillers, often involving a central motif taken from art or history. Increasingly, however, he is known for his Captain Alatriste series of swashbuckling historical novels, which have made his name in Spain and which are now becoming available in English. To my frustration, I could not see who the translator was in the edition I read, which given I thought the English persuasive and free from jarring literalisms is a shame as I would have preferred to credit them in this entry.

The Sun over Breda is the third of the Captain Alatriste novels, so in order for this entry to make sense I shall step back a bit and set the scene. Pérez-Reverte is a fan of the work of Dumas, in particular the Three Musketeers series. Captain Alatriste is his homage to that earlier sequence of works, Pérez-Reverte’s own swashbuckling hero to add to the ranks of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis.

The series is set in Spain in the 1620s, in the reign of the rather hapless Phillip IV. Already, Spain is in decline with vast numbers of unemployed soldiers thronging the streets of Madrid and with a man’s pride and honour often being the only possessions left to him. Of utmost importance is Hidalguia, being a Hidalgo. A Hidalgo is a noble, of the lowest rank but sufficient rank to be exempt from many taxes. Many Hidalgos are dirt poor, they have nothing but their name and their honour, and those and their Hidalguia are the only bequests they have to leave their children. It is, therefore, a violent time and men are touchy and easily drawn to fatal argument.

It is also a time of great art, among Alatriste’s acquaintances is a young court artist, Diego de Velasquez, and poetry is vibrant and as much a weapon between men of honour as swords can be.

Captain Alatriste is himself an aging veteran, an honorary captain with no real rank and little employment or prospects. He is accompanied by a boy who acts as narrator, Íñigo Balboa, the framing device being that these are his memoirs of his days with the captain written when the boy has become an old man. Like the Flashman novels, Alatriste is inserted into history where he encounters and interacts with famous events and figures, and where notionally at least he is portrayed as genuinely being part of our history.

In the first two novels, we meet the major characters and Alatriste’s chilling nemesis (who plays no part in this third novel, so won’t be referred to further here). The first is an amusing and successful Dumas-esque piece of swashbuckling entertainment, hugely fun and a fitting tribute to the skill of Dumas’s original works (which I rate very highly, and which are much darker in their original literary form than many –Pérez-Reverte being an obvious exception – realise). The second examines in detail the principle of Purity of Blood, a highly political doctrine in Spain of that day under which men with any hint of Jewish blood in their background were barred from public office. With the third novel, war with the rebellious United Provinces has once again arisen, giving employment (if not generally pay) to anyone capable of bearing a musket or pike. We find Alatriste and his young narrator Íñigo fighting the Dutch and their Protestant allies, a fight that will lead inexorably to the famous siege of Breda, as immortalised by Velasquez in his masterpiece The Surrender at Breda.

Indeed, that painting is the heart of this novel. This is the novelisation of a painting, of the events leading up to it, of how that which it commemorates came to pass. The painting even exists in the novel, we are told that Velasquez took the details for it from Íñigo and near the end we meet Velasquez as he works upon it. Pérez-Reverte has a fondness for games of this sort, for placing artistic references in his works that make the external work of art a piece of his own work, taking our world into his.

Where the first two Alatriste novels were a mixture of swashbuckling vigour and historical intrigue however, this third novel is a much bleaker affair. Before reading it, I lent it to a friend who returned it with the comment that there was too little swashbuckling for his taste, and too much trench warfare. Although I enjoyed it more than he did, having now read it myself I do know what he meant. This is a grim novel. Men fight, kill and die and they do so in terrible conditions and with little meaningful reason to their sacrifices. We are in the Europe of the 30 year war, and it is a terrible place where hunger is the norm and a man’s life of no import whatsoever. This is not a novel to read for some enjoyable escapism (but then, nor is Twenty Years After, as Pérez-Reverte might well point out).

The book opens with an assault on the Dutch town of Oudkerk, we see a ruse open its gates to the Spanish troops without who fall upon it in a historic massacre, 150 men taking a town garrisoned with 700 enemy troops (according to Pérez-Reverte anyway, and since the history that I know is correctly portrayed in this novel I have every reason to believe the history I do not know is equally accurate). In what will become a theme, the Spanish forces decline to take prisoners of the enemy forces, killing all those they encounter (not all of whom may even be combatants) and sacking the town brutally. As Íñigo is at pains to point out however, this is a lawful sacking, the town was offered the chance to surrender and declined to do so and so as the custom of the day had it (a custom which harked back to Roman times originally I believe) a conquered town which had not chosen to surrender was at the mercy of those who had taken it.

Discipline in the Spanish army is brutal too, on the eve of attack some soldiers are hanged for sexual offences, so as to discourage others on the day from assaulting the women of Oudkerk (as opposed to killing all the men and stealing everything they find, including that which is nailed down). By way of comment on the need for discipline, Íñigo remarks:

“No unit and no company is perfect. Even in Christ’s, which was one he had recruited himself, there was one who betrayed him, another who denied him and yet another who failed to believe him.”

These are practical men, superstitious and religious both, but well able to put both to one side when need demands it and with little difficulty reconciling their own occupations with the religion they see themselves as promoting.

And so we continue, we see camp life under a Colonel nicknamed by his men Ropeshitter due to his fondness for hanging soldiers for any infraction however minor. We see battles, we see slow siege-work in which rival trenches are dug by each side while snipers kill any man unwise enough to put his head too high. All this is an accurate depiction of the warfare of the period, trench warfare was far from a 1914 invention. It is also, however, pretty dark stuff as men die frequently without sight of their aggressor and where more time is spent digging than actually engaging an enemy. Opportunities for glory seem few, the army is bankrupt and pay long overdue, hunger is a constant companion.

Despite all this slow toil and grind, combat is a frequent occurrence in the book, and as one might hope is skilfully described carrying an immediacy and a horror which although again not at all swashbuckling in nature nonetheless carries a real power. An excerpt here from a passage in which Íñigo, who is at this point just 14 years old, is caught in the midst of a vicious open field engagement where the force he is part of must hold the ground at all costs:

“At our backs, behind the pikes, rippled the shot-shredded crosses of St. Andrew. The Hollanders were right upon us, an avalanche of frightened or terrible eyes and blood-covered faces. Large, blond, courageous heretics were attempting to bury their pikes and halberds in us or run us through with their swords. I watched as Alatriste and Copons, shoulder to shoulder, dropped their harquebuses to the ground and unsheathed their Toledo blades, planting their feet firmly. I also watched as Dutch pikes penetrated our lines, and saw their lances wound and mutilate, twisting in bloody flesh. Diego Alatriste was slashing with sword and dagger among the long ash pikes. I grabbed one as it went by me and a Spaniard beside me plunged his sword into the neck of the Hollander holding the far end, his blood streamed down the shaft onto my hands. Now Spanish pikes were coming to our aid, approaching from behind us to attack the Dutch over our backs and through the spaces left by the dead. Everything was a labyrinth of lances and a crescendo of carnage.

I fought my way toward Alatriste, pushing through our comrades. When a Hollander cut his way through our men with his sword and fell at the captain’s feet, locking his arm around his legs with the intention of pulling him down as well, I gave a loud shout, pulled out my dagger and sprang toward him, determined to defend my master, even if I was cut to pieces in the process. Blinded by my madness, I fell upon the heretic, flattened my hand over his face and pressed his head to the ground. Alatriste kicked and pulled to be free of him and twice plunged his sword into the man’s body from above. The Hollander rolled over but was not willing to give up the ghost. He was a hearty man but he was bleeding from his mouth and nose like a Jarama bull at the end of a corrida. I can remember the sticky feel of his blood – red and streaked with gunpowder – and the dirt and blond stubble on his white, freckled faced. He fought me, unresigned to dying, whoreson that he was, and I fought him back. Still holding him down with my left hand, I tightened my grip on the dagger in my right and stabbed him three times in the ribs, but I was so close to his chest that all three attempts slid across the leather buffcoat protecting his torso. He felt the blows, for I saw his eyes open wide, and at last he released my master’s legs in order to protect his face, as if he were afraid I would wound him there. He moaned. I was blinded by fear and fury, deranged by this mongrel, who so obstinately refused to die. I stuck the tip of my dagger between the fastenings of his buffcoat. ‘Neee. …Srinden. …Nee,’ the heretic murmured, and I pressed down with all the weight of my body. In less than an Ave Maria he spat up one last vomit of blood, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he lay as still as if he had never had life.”

Now, there is much in that prose one could criticise were one minded to, phrases such as “give up the ghost” are clichéd and the language is in many ways quite workmanlike, but as a description of a horrific battle to the death culminating in a boy taking a man’s life with his dagger as they grapple in dirt and filth, I find it very effective and I am not persuaded that more sophisticated prose would actually improve the passage. The very flatness of the text, the matter of fact descriptions and the quotidianity of the language, each add to the horror and to the impression that what is happening no matter how terrible is in fact no more than a job of work for these individuals.

Later, on a battle turning irrevocably in their favour, the Spaniards go into a revel of killing, chasing the enemy as they flee and cutting them down without mercy. Again, they do not take surrenders, those they catch, they kill. They rob corpses, they slaughter men who have hands raised in surrender and who are pleading for mercy, when a group retreats into a farmhouse they burn it down and kill all who emerge. They kill until the Spanish fury (a phrase of the time) deserts them and they collapse in sheer exhaustion. This is not a war of duels and gentlemen (though more on that later, for some of it is), it is carnage and butchery in which the sheer relief of being alive is expressed more often than not in the killing of others.

In between battles, soldiers manage to offend each other to the point of fighting duels to the death, a rebellion over backpay arises (but not before a town is taken, the troops pride themselves on only rebelling after victories so that none can accuse them of cowardice), a tyrant commander takes vicious pleasure in hanging his own men, the book despite it’s relatively short length (partly disguised by needlessly wide spacing in the Phoenix edition I read) contains much incident. We see the lives of the men at camp as well as at battle, but life at camp is a prelude to battle and the book’s most memorable sequences tend in the main to be in its battles.

As the siege continues, Alatriste and others are sent into tunnels to intercept Dutch counter-tunnels (or possibly Dutch counter-counter tunnels, it was common practice for each side to undermine the other’s works). In an unrelenting seven page sequence Alatriste and a small number of others crawl through narrow and unstable passages to intercept the Dutch, on encountering them they fight in darkness and in the knowledge that once again neither side will be taking prisoners and that surrender is simply a means of hastening your own execution. Using sharpened digging tools as weapons, they butcher the Dutch, feeling for them in darkness. They then must flee (crawling on their bellies all the while) when the Dutch outside the immediate attack flood the tunnels with poisonous sulphur in a bid to kill the Spaniards, even if they kill their own in the process. This is not portrayed as anything noble, it is killing as a chore, as a task which must be performed but in which no great pleasure is taken. Killing, like digging, is simply another job for the tired and hungry Spanish soldier to accomplish, and there is no greater moral weight to one action than there is to the other.

I mentioned above this not being a war for gentleman, and yet as the book shows us some absurd fragments of what passes for chivalry remain. At one point the Dutch besieged in Breda send out a challenge, five Protestant men will fight five Spaniards. Nothing hangs on this, the Dutch will not surrender if they lose nor the Spaniards depart if they should fail. It is simply a matter of honour, a further pointless piece of butchery under the guise of gentlemanly conduct.

The duel itself is briefly described:

“Don Luis de Bobadilla, the younger of the two guzmanes, went down with the first shots, while the others closed in on each other with great energy and deadly intent. One of the Dutchmen was felled by a pistol shot that broke his neck, and another of his companions, the Scot, was wounded in the torso, run through by the sword of Pedro Martin, who lost it there. Finding himself with no sword and two discharged pistols, he was then knifed in the throat and chest, falling upon the man he had just killed. As for Don Carlos del Arco, he engaged the Frenchman so skilfully that, between thrust and counter thrust, he was able to aim a shot at his face, though he then withdrew from the fight, hobbled by a wicked wound to his thigh. Minaya finished off the Frenchman with Captain Alatriste’s pistol and badly wounded the second Dutchman with his own, emerging without a scratch himself. And Egiluz, his left hand crippled by a musket ball but with his sword in his right, dealt to clean blows to the last of their opponents, one on an arm and the other to the flank. The heretic, seeing himself wounded and alone, resolved, like Antigone, not to flee exactly, but to fall back and check his resources. The three Spaniards still standing relieved their adversaries of their weapons and their bands, which were orange, according to the custom of those who served the Estates General. They would even have carried the bodies of Bobadilla and Martin to our lines had the Dutch, furious at the outcome, not consoled themselves over their defeat with a hailstorm of musket balls. Our men, therefore, were slowly quitting the field when a musketeer’s lead struck Egiluz in the kidneys, and although, helped by his companions, he reached the trenches, he died three days later. As for the seven bodies, they lay on open ground almost all day, until there was a brief truce at dusk and each side was able to recover its own.”

Thus goes chivalry in 1625.

Again, the prose is workmanlike rather than refined, and Pérez-Reverte shows a great fondness for commas, but given the narrative is supposed to be that of a retired soldier looking back, and given the intent is to portray the events of the day as in a picture, for me, it works well and I think the style of language well suited to the effect Pérez-Reverte seeks to achieve.

Battles and bloodshed continues, culminating in a twelve page depiction of a vicious battle in which the Spanish are overrun and fight near to the last man to prevent their banner falling into enemy hands and so dishonouring their tercio (a body of men of the time). Preferring to die defending their honour than to die fleeing, and knowing that as so often in this novel surrender will not be accepted, for twelve pages men fight and die in a welter of fatigued savagery as bullets run out long before the advancing enemy are depleted.

“’This is the end,’ said Pablo Olivares.
We looked at one another, undecided, hearing the cries of the English drawing closer up the slope. Their clamour was making me quake with terror, a bottomless despair. We had less time left than it takes to recite the Credo, and no options but the enemy or the swamp.[Note, earlier in the novel they themselves slaughtered men who fled to a swamp.] Some men started drawing their swords.
‘The standard,’ said Alatriste.
Several looked at him as if they did not understand his words. Others, Copons first among them, went and stood by the Captain.
‘He’s right,’ said Mendieta, ‘better with the standard’.
I knew what he meant. Better out there with the standard, fighting around it, than here behind the gabions, cornered like rabbits. I know longer felt any fear, only a deep and ancient weariness, and a wish to finish this thing.”

Once again we have the same refrains as earlier, fatigue, desperation, an utter lack of meaningful choice before the protagonists. Religion as a constant source of reference (Christ’s company, in less than an Ave Maria, less time left than it takes to recite the Credo), but a source of seemingly no comfort at all. Death is a matter of duty and obligation, the death of others and one’s own.

So, overall a grim and fairly unrelenting work. One in which war is portrayed as bloody and brutal, with Pérez-Reverte intentionally setting the whole of the novel in the smoky ruin that merely forms an element of backdrop to Velasquez’s masterpiece. Here orders are not explained, men are sent on missions from which there is little meaningful prospect of return (and many do not return), life is fragile and very fleeting but these are not men who by virtue of that fact hold it all the more precious. Rather, they are hardened, accustomed to death, it is not in the end a matter of great importance to them. It is certainly of far less importance than their honour.

A final quote, before some final thoughts, a comment by Íñigo on the nature of the Spanish troops:

“…despised, cruel, arrogant Spaniards disciplined only when under fire, who suffered everything in any assault but would allow no man to raise his voice to them.”

On the matter of final thoughts, as that last quote shows, this is a novel with an ambiguous relationship to its subject matter. It is hard on reading it not to feel a pride on Pérez-Reverte’s part in these men and in what they, and Spain, achieved. Again, like Flashman and George MacDonald Fraser, although much is condemned and much held up as idiocy, there is a feeling that the Empire is seen as something glorious and the sacrifices made for it perhaps at some level worthwhile. As in MacDonald Fraser, war is a terrible and bloody business, but the men who fight it are glorious despite the utter lack of any glory. It is, as I say, an ambiguous attitude to the source material but it is an ambiguity which I think MacDonald Fraser also shares and is perhaps unavoidable in writing of such terrible events in which such surprising courage was sometimes displayed.

Pérez-Reverte also plays a number of games with the reader, poems are included in the back which may or may not be historical (some clearly are not since they reference Alatriste himself, some it is not so clear – to me at any rate). He includes an essay on why although Alatriste is said to be in the Velasquez painting he cannot be seen in it today, he recovers excerpts which he claims were deleted from a play of the period and which when reinserted into it refer to Alatriste’s exploits. He maintains the fiction of Alatriste’s reality, and once again the comparison with MacDonald Fraser seems apt.

Do I recommend this novel? It’s hard to say. My friend was right, it is short on swashbuckling and long on trench warfare. It makes for a surprisingly grim read, and is by no means the light hearted romp the (rather glorious) cover portrays it as. For all that, as an evocation of the experience of war in the early 17th Century it succeeds amply and as a work of historical fiction it certainly has its rewards. I do hope, however, that the next instalment sees a return to Madrid, intrigue and a little romance and humour placed back in to the mix.

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