Category Archives: Military fiction

“I’m a scientist, not a not a bloody politician.”

The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin

Nigel Balchin is one of a great many authors who were once highly popular and are now largely forgotten. The public move on, tastes change, and writers who were once household names fade from view.

To an extent that’s a good thing. We have to let go of some of the old writers to make space for the new, and forgetting writers allows us to discover them again as if they were new themselves.

From that perspective I can say that Nigel Balchin is one of the most exciting new writers I’ve read this year. The fact his The Small Back Room was first published in 1943 doesn’t change that at all.

balchin

Sammy Rice is a scientist working in a small quasi-official research group. The group’s headed by the “Old Man”, Professor Mair, but Mair’s past his best and Sammy is now easily the most technically adept of the team and quite possibly the brightest. He’s an extremely talented man.

Unfortunately, he’s also a fairly self-destructive man. He’s struggling with a drink problem which he keeps in check, but only just; he’s in a relationship with the number-two’s secretary which neither of them can admit to since it’s a workplace romance; and while he’s an unsentimental sort he’s dangerously prone to self-pity.

Here’s how the novel opens:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

Mair’s number two is Waring, a former ad-executive. Mair has the ear of the minister and that’s what gives their little outfit its reach and clout, but Mair’s an ivory-tower sort with no instinct for politics. Waring by contrast is all about the salesmanship. Mair and the rest of the team come up with the ideas and Waring makes them happen.

The problem is Waring doesn’t understand the science and sometimes makes promises the scientists struggle to deliver. Recently he’s promoted a new type of anti-tank weapon that Mair was quite fond of, but Sammy’s researched it and the weapon’s a dog. The army is already complaining it’s too complex and will cost lives, but the minister’s been briefed and wants it to happen and nobody wants to say no to the minister.

That’s all very wartime and specific, except of course that if you just change the details a little nothing’s really changed. For the minister read a CEO, for Mair senior management, for Waring middle management, and for Rice someone on the front line trying to tell a lot of very senior people that they’ve got it wrong…

For Rice the question isn’t what the minister wants or who’s fond of which device but what the science says. He’s aware that departmental politics can mean one project gets approved and another canned and he knows that which is which can have little to do with their quality. Even so, he disdains politics, is loyal to the Old Man and rather looks down on Waring. It’s because of that he keeps finding himself blindsided by him:

As I went upstairs I wondered whether the point was that Waring was clever or that I was dumb. It was always the same story. He’d say something in his careless way that got you darned angry. Then as soon as you tackled him he’d open his eyes very wide and explain that he’d meant something else quite innocent. The trouble was that other people only heard the first bit. They didn’t hear the explanation.

Meanwhile, Rice has been asked unofficially to help look into a new type of bomb the Germans have developed. It’s a small device and particularly lethal as it lies on the ground until picked up and then detonates. So far it’s killed everyone who’s encountered one, including several children.

The bomb project is exactly the sort of thing that interests Rice: a purely technical challenge with no messy interdepartmental issues to worry about. Back at his day job though powerful forces within the Ministry of Defence are moving against Mair and his little outfit and Rice’s refusal to play politics could cost him.

Small Back Room has one of the best portrayals of the quiet viciousness of internal politics that I’ve seen. There’s a tremendous scene where various scientists, army officers and officials are gathered to consider the new anti-tank weapon. Mair is too grand and remote to realise that the meeting’s a power play and that his job could be on the line. Rice is too honest to lie when asked point-blank what he thinks of the weapon. It’s an avoidable disaster. Waring of course was the weapon’s chief champion so logically you’d think he’d be most damaged. He gets promoted.

At the same time Small Back Room is an astute psychological portrait of self-sabotage. Rice prefers to stay above the fray, let things go wrong and then complain rather than take control and risk getting his hands dirty. It’s clear from the start of the book that Mair’s days are numbered and that he’ll soon be put out to grass, but Rice would rather wait for it to happen than position himself as a potential successor – a role he’s amply suited for and which is his for the taking.

Rice’s long-suffering girlfriend, Susan, can see that he’s unhappy but can’t force him to take responsibility for his own life. She worries that her presence gives him just enough comfort that he doesn’t feel the need to fix the rest of his life, but she can’t leave because they do love each other and she can see his ability even as it frustrates her that he wastes it.

Rice battles his drive to drink with little rules and games and mostly succeeds. In fact it’s one of the best illustrations of someone successfully fighting alcoholism I’ve seen, but while he seems mostly to be winning he hasn’t won. He’s stuck; not moving forward and not happy where he is.

Rice has a lot to prove: to himself; to Susan, to the world. Increasingly the problem of the bomb starts to look like an answer. If he can work out how this new bomb is triggered, why it’s so dangerous and how to disarm it perhaps that one success will make the rest of his life a success. Perhaps.

There’s much more I could say (and in an earlier draft, did). What’s important though is that I thought Small Back Room absolutely exceptional. It manages to make an interdepartmental meeting almost as tense as a scene of a single man desperately trying to defuse a type of bomb that’s killed everyone else who’s come near it. It’s tightly written, convincing and genuinely tense. It deserves rediscovering.

Other reviews

I discovered this thanks to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations. His review is here. Interestingly Clive James also wrote about Balchin and this novel here, though he discusses more of the plot than I do (and I don’t entirely agree with his take on the ending).

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Filed under Balchin, Nigel, Military fiction, UK fiction

All that is important is known

Conventions of War, by Walter Jon Williams

Conventions of War is a 677 page science fiction novel, third of a trilogy totalling 2,000 odd pages in total. At about half that length it would be a lot of fun, as it is it’s just a lot.

And a word of warning here, as it’s the third of a trilogy in order to discuss it I have to discuss the previous books a bit first. That means this writeup’s about twice the length I’d like too…

Walter Jon Williams is a talented science fiction writer. He was one of the early cyberpunk authors, his novel Hardwired is a classic of that genre (and indeed is closer to how most folk picture the genre than Neuromancer or Islands in the Net). He’s written a lot of other good books though, my personal favourite being Days of Atonement.

Before writing science fiction (I think, I can’t swear to the chronology), Williams wrote historical naval fiction, golden age of sail stuff. He even wrote a roleplaying game based on that material, Privateers and Gentlemen, which for the curious is based heavily on early Runequest with the lethality turned up (extraordinary as that may seem to anyone familiar with early Runequest) – characters mostly die of postoperative infections.

That’s relevant, because the trilogy Conventions of War is part of, titled Dread Empire’s fall, is in part 18th Century naval fiction in space (markedly so in the first volume, less so as the series progresses). The chief characters are talented, but held back because the traditions of the service (that phrase is used more than once) reward family connections and seniority vastly more than they do ability – indeed can even be hostile to ability.

Of the two main characters one, Martinez, is a lucky captain who through daring and tactical genius claims prizes other captains wouldn’t even dream of. Thomas Cochrane’s ghost remains with us, even thousands of years into the future it seems (as a rule of thumb, naval fiction and pretty much all fictional naval heroes are heavily based on Thomas Cochrane’s real life – if you’ve not heard of him he’s worth reading into). The other main character, a female naval officer named Sula, at one point even gains inspiration by reading up on the Napoleonic wars, just in case you missed the link. Sula is also tactically brilliant by the way, and of course beautiful (Martinez and Sula are both a bit too perfect really, brilliant, attractive, disadvantaged only by their lack of social connections, it makes them for me a bit hard to care about)

There is, oddly enough, a bit of a tradition of recasting golden age of sail fiction in space, there’s an Honor Harrington series which I’ve not read but have heard good things of that does precisely that for example. The problem I had with it in this instance is that I kept thinking, well, given Williams used to write historical naval fiction then to be honest I’d rather read that than the same stuff recast in space.

Anyway, enough background, what’s it about? The premise of the series is that an alien race, the Shaa, have created an empire which has lasted millennia and which contains a number of intelligent species within it, including us. The Shaa rule according to the Praxis, a code setting out the correct way to live one’s life, to order one’s society. The Praxis is brutal, highly conservative, unbending, but it has resulted in unprecedented stability. At the opening of the first novel, titled The Praxis, the last of the Shaa burdened by memories of a vastly long life chooses to die and with it the Shaa pass into extinction. The Shaa expect nothing to change after their death, but soon the empire is plunged into civil war as the first race conquered by the Shaa, the Naxids, decide that they should be the Shaa’s heirs and so attempt to take control from the multi-species council the Shaa left behind.

As a setup, it’s fine. It explains the cultural forces Williams needs, the ancient noble families, the traditions of service in the navy, the lack of need for rewarding innovation and indeed the outright hostility to it. What it doesn’t explain is why the empire needs much of a navy at all though, there are no external civilisations and although rebellion is possible the Praxis has such harsh punishments for it it’s hard to imagine anyone being much tempted. Britain had a powerful navy because it needed one, and a major plot point in much naval historical fiction is how at times of peace that navy is cut back heavily, captains and crew being cast into unemployment. Here, with no external threats and few internal ones, I would expect more of a police force with spaceships than an actual navy.

The first two novels chart the breakout of war, early victories by Martinez when he discards accepted naval doctrine and develops new strategies, and the Naxid’s initial victories as they take the capital planet Zanshaa. They follow too Sula, who for a while has a passionate relationship with Martinez and who helped him develop the new tactics. Sula stays behind on Zanshaa when it falls, assigned to a covert military resistance group which is soon destroyed leaving her to organise resistance on her own.

As Conventions of War opens, the loyalist fleet is taking the fight to the Naxid rebels destroying their supply chains and bases, while Sula engages in a private war against the Naxid occupation forces, a war which soon involves assassinations, retaliatory hostage executions by the Naxids and counter-retaliatory bombings of prominent Naxid judges and of collaborators.

The difficulty is that in this volume by and large Martinez’s story isn’t that engaging. Haunted by an act of war against a Naxid world that led to the death of billions of people, his mission is largely one of threatening undefended worlds and destroying merchant shipping and naval construction facilities. Williams spices this up with a murder plot on Martinez’s ship, but given I already had a plot to follow regarding Sula’s insurgency and the larger Martinez plot about the naval war, the whole whodunnit angle simply added nothing for me. It was fat, that could have been trimmed off without affecting the overall thrust of the book at all.

Sula’s story is more interesting, dealing as it does in issues of moral compromise. She embraces the Naxid hostage massacres, seeing them as a useful recruiting tool. Although at one point she warns a Naxid school party to run when she’s planted a bomb, she doesn’t delay its detonation to make sure the children aren’t killed. She cuts a deal with local gangsters the better to achieve her ends, and incites the general populace to take violent action against the Naxids even knowing that most of those she inspires will be captured, tortured and killed.

Here, Sula has issued an underground newsletter telling civilians how to set up resistance groups of their own:

A group of students at the Grandview Preparatory School staged an unsuccessful ambush of a Naxid Fleet officer returning home on a train. Details were scarce in the official reports, but possibly they intended to beat the officer senseless and steal his firearm. A couple of the attackers were killed outright and the rest captured. Under interrogation, they confessed to being members of an “anarchist cell,” and apparently they named others, both fellow students and teachers, because there were a series of arrests.
The Grandview school was purged. The alleged anarchists were tortured to death on the punishment channel, and the students’ families shot.

Martinez’s own engagements tend to be less dramatic, most resulting in no action at all but the constant tension of not knowing when the forces he’s with may encounter the main Naxid fleet:

The squadron entered “hot,” radars and ranging lasers hammering in search of a foe. The Naxids knew Chenforce was coming, and they just might have prepared some kind of surprise.
No surprise was in the offing, though since the Naxids had turned off their own radars, it took some hours for this to become apparent. Termaine Wormhole 1 was a considerable distance from Termaine’s primary, outside the heliopause, and it would take days for Chenforce to near the planet. If there were any surprises, they would be further into the system.

Conventions of War does have less tense moments. There is some nice humour with Martinez’s utter ignorance of everything outside the navy. He’s assigned an office at one point decorated with Renaissance-style putti. To him, someone has painted pudgy and naked flying infants on the wall – it utterly mystifies him. Equally, I enjoyed his utter lack of palate, which coupled with his having access to a very fine kitchen staff and cellar results in several scenes where guests complement the food and drink while he wonders what they’re talking about.

The book could have used more of that humour, more of that humanity. Sula I found less interesting than Williams himself evidently did, she was simply a bit too efficient, too competent. Martinez had more potential for me, but was wasted on the murder plot which I just didn’t care about. And worst of all, his tactical genius fatally undermines the naval combats – the Naxids are bound by tradition to conventional tactics which make the fights tremendously one sided affairs. Williams addresses this by making the real tension about Martinez fighting his superiors so he can use those tactics, but while I found that credible internal naval politics just isn’t as exciting as more challenging space battles would have been.

In the end though, the key point for me is that Conventions was just far too long. The setting of Dread Empire’s Fall is a good one, yes the aliens all act exactly like humans but even so it’s well thought out and has plenty of potential. The trouble is, there’s so much potential Williams tries to fit it all in, but there’s two or three separate novels worth here each of which would have been stronger separated from the other material. Williams leaves room for sequels, if they’re around the 2-300 pages mark I might well read them, if they continue to hit the 600+ point though I suspect I’ll pass.

Conventions of War

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Filed under Military fiction, SF, Williams, Walter Jon

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

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.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/showbook.php?id=0753823608

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Filed under Captain Alatriste, Historical fiction, Military fiction, Pérez-Reverte, Arturo, Spanish

Ce n’est pas magnifique, mais c’est la guerre

Originally posted 1 July 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.

As I write this, I am unfortunately rather under the weather, as such I may return to this book in a later post to comment on it further, when more coherent.

Goshawk Squadron is a 1971 novel, then shortlisted for the Booker prize. It’s a novel about a squadron of the Royal Flying Corp, serving in France in 1918. More to the point, it’s a novel about war, about class, about the myth of the gentleman and about the conflict (still current in 1971) between gentlemen and players.

The concept of gentlemen and players goes back originally to cricket, and to the very British concept of the gifted amateur. A gentleman was one who by virture of birth and education had a certain natural talent for things, one who could play cricket but did so within the bounds of sportmanship and good fellowship. A player was a professional, not an amateur at all but rather someone who played for money. A gentleman was therefore a man of means who played from love of the game, while a player was a man of likely working class origin who was closer to a mercenary.

British history of the 20th Century is in large part the history of the downfall of the gentleman and the rise of the player. In 1971 the myth of the gifted amateur, the good chap who was sound and could be relied on, was still current in many walks of life (not least government and finance). It was not until 1987 that the player really became the dominant force in British cultural life.

So, Goshawk Squadron is in part about class. But it’s also about the war and the sheer randomness of it all. Stanley Wooley commands Goshawk Squadron, a working class (or lower middle class) man, a player who fights in order to kill the enemy. His squadron is composed of young men mostly of good families, who arrive in batches and die so swiftly that he struggles to keep track of their names. Wooley is cynical, burnt out, filled with hatred for the men under his command (in large part it seems because the alternative to hating them is despair given their likely life spans). Young men arrive full of propaganda and myths about being knights of the air, chivalric paragons who duel their German counterparts openly and honestly. Wooley teaches them to sneak up behind the enemy and to shoot them in the back, before the enemy knows they are there.

The novel has many characters in it, and frequently grants characters a narrative perspective so that for a while one sees events through a given character’s eyes and then from another’s. We meet many of them, each character briefly (but skilfully) sketched, and then most of them die.

They die in training, they die from lack of training, they die from equipment failure, they occasionally even die in combat. Characters die that we have just met. Characters die who have survived much of the novel. Characters die in the middle of enjoying a narrative perspective, characters die without us ever seeing events from their perspective. We meet characters, we briefly get to know them, some of them die and which ones is quite unpredictable.

The men of the squadron spend their time in training, in flying seemingly pointless missions, in carousing in French towns taking drink they cannot pay for and in one case accidentally killing a French restaurateur in a fit of drunken high jinks with tragic consequences. The men know they are going to die, except the new men who frequently don’t live long enough to realise how short their lifespans are likely to be.

Much of the novel revolves around Wooley’s exhaustive training schedule, where he tries to prepare the men as best he can. As they go to the front new men are transferred in, essentially untrained. Wooley’s efforts are near pointless, the men he trains also die in droves.

The French pursue the men for the accidental killing of the restaurateur, Wooley offers to court martial a man and picks at random – it is evident that whoever is tried will not live long enough to see a verdict anyway so it simply doesn’t matter who is held accountable.

The book is well written, often very funny, the black humour and cameraderie of the men is excellently captured. The naievety of the new recruits, the tension between Wooley’s pragmatism and the idealism of the gentlemen who come to him, the innocence and the frequent reminders of how young they all are, all these things are heartbreaking. A character experiences a triumph at one point, and is described as not having been so happy since he was made head boy at school the year before. Wooley, who throughout most of the novel is portrayed as an old man jaundiced through years of service, is only 23.

One comes to sympathise with many of the men, to see one of them slowly falling apart while the others don’t notice, to sympathise too with the women who enter into relationships with them while trying not to recognise that any love they show for these men is likely to end in bereavement within weeks. The characters are mostly likeable, or at least human, and yet for all their idealism and humour and love of life they still die casually and randomly throughout the novel.

Overall, it’s a powerful work, an indictment of the concept of an honourable war, a study of the death of the gifted amateur as the embodiment of English values, an examination of war and its impact on those caught up in it. It’s a reminder of the fact that war is about killing people, and that however it is dressed up in clothes of patriotism or honour or glory, killing people is ultimately a very ugly business.

It does remind me in part also of the marvellous novel The Hunters, by James Salter (who actually flew combat missions in Korea), in part perhaps as that is the only other novel about fighter pilots I have read. In The Hunters the tension revolves around the desire for the status of being recognised as an Ace (a man who has downed five MIGs). The pilots patrol a river during the Korean war, dreaming of facing MIGs, but generally seeing out their time in tedious patrols.

Again the conflict between the desire for glory, for recognition, and the messy reality is examined and again the characters of men are laid bare by the tensions of war. In Goshawk Squadron though the men are in a meat grinder, the average outcome is death, the men band together in the face of that certainty. In The Hunters most missions involve no sighting of the enemy, the fear is of no opportunity for combat and the pilots are much lonelier figures who are driven by competition with each other and a fear of being passed by while others excel. In Goshawk Squadron the characters arive with dreams of glory and soon hope merely to survive, in The Hunters the men compete for glory and the desire to prove themselves. In both, the shortfall between men’s desires and the circumstances of war is exposed and the impact of war upon the psyche effectively examined.

More possibly on another occasion, when my head doesn’t feel as if it were wrapped in several very dense layers of cotton wool.

Addendum, 17 July: The reference above to 1987 is actually wrong, and should have been to 1986. The reference was to the Big Bang in the City of London, which I view as a major factor in the decline of the concept of the gentleman as a major factor in British public life.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Goshawk-Squadron-Cassell-Military-Paperbacks/dp/0304356433/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214911454&sr=1-3

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Filed under Booker, Military fiction, Robinson, Derek, UK fiction