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Thursday 8 June 2017

Book review - March the Ninth

R.C. Hutchinson’s first person narrative March the Ninth was published in 1957; he spent two years writing it. He garnered praise in his time: C Day Lewis stated ‘Hutchinson is one of the very few living novelists who will be read fifty – perhaps a hundred – years hence.’ Compton Mackenzie believed he was ‘The best male novelist his generation has produced in England.’ 

Well, some sixty years after its publication, I’m reading the book.  Along with uniform paperback editions of A Child Possessed, Johanna at Daybreak, Recollection of a Journey and Shining Scabbard, it was released in an Arrow Books imprint, Zenith, in 1984. None of his books have been republished since, which is a shame as he is a compelling writer.

1947. Eugen Reichenbach is a surgeon working for the World Universities Relief Organization (Health and Nutritional Coordination). He meets an old associate, Kurt Wenzel who talks him into performing an emergency operation on a desperately ill man, Siegfried, who has been shot in a lung. A simple act of humanity; he couldn’t refuse. And so he becomes embroiled in a daring escape plan, with police from several countries in pursuit.

Like Hammond Innes, Hutchinson manages to put the reader in the scene, to live the life of the narrator, so convincing is the writing. Along the way, we are indulged with snippets of philosophy: ‘The fortunate live long lives in corners which history does not discover. We others, caught when history is in spate, can do no better than keep afloat and land where the current takes us.’ (p11)

His journey of humanity involves crossing the land at night: ‘Behind us the ground fell away steeply… and if there were greater heights ahead they were hidden, in the still feeble light, by a mist which hung like folded silk between the outcrop and the crouching trees. I felt as if I had been lifted to a secret country, remote from earth yet gently familiar, washed with brackish mountain air and alive with the music of trickling water.’ (p41)

There are many instances where the good doctor’s calling are referenced; for example: ‘… but I had learnt in the thirties to regard ecstatic verbiage as one regards the indications of sepsis in an injured limb.’ (p43) Another instance: ‘… the memory of my last encounter …when I had received her thanks with such meagre grace… had become a chronic abscess on my mind.’ (p84) And: ‘To untaught ears the sound of (the ship’s) engines was always laboured and faulty, like the breathing of a man with pericarditis.’ (p202)

Franziska, the wife of his patient, exerts an uncanny hold on his emotions, ‘a sense of peace which her companionship had brought me.’ (p109)  And ‘If I went back to an existence which seemed narrow and purposeless, the recollection that I had once been trusted with another’s solitude would still illumine and transmute my own.’ (p109) She had ‘the laughter of Vienna, delicately derisive, which breaks like the notes of a clarinet upon a day of mourning.’ (p110) They shared an unspoken bond, pure, decent; perhaps even painful. ‘When you come to the awaited moment, when you have only minutes to recover the loss of wasted years, those past and those to come, the mind will not admit the discipline of language.’ (p196) He was tongue-tied in her presence. ‘All that it means to be alive, and of human status, was in the hand I held, in the small exhausted being who let me hold it. Speechless, I prayed for time to cease, for this moment to be vested with infinity.’ (p196)

He introduced me to a couple of words new to me: an entresol – a mezzanine floor; and ‘He led me now with sciurine confidence along an alley between two concrete walls…’ Sciurine - pertaining to animals like squirrels. His visualisation is good, too: on the waterfront, ‘… where gantries like siege towers strode upon us from the gloom…’ (p174) And ‘in the four or five vessels lying at the quay I saw no light: they looked like the carcasses of ships which had been tethered there and left to die.’ (p188) I know, this is an eerie feeling: one night it was my duty to check our ship which was without crew and without power, treading the metal ladders and decks with a torch.

So many priceless phrases! ‘… as one accustomed to extract essential truth from the husk of circumlocution.’ (p192) That could be transposed for an interviewer of a politician! Another instance: ‘… with his eyes turned away, exhibiting the faint disdainful smile of an upright man refusing to buy indecent photographs.’ (p202)

Having been aboard a ship in very rough seas (bordering on a typhoon), I can vouch for his observation: ‘…while the floor lazily tiled from side to side, sometimes with an extra screwing motion, and now and then drove up against my feet as if a charge of cordite had been fired beneath it.’ (p203) As a landlubber, he would refer to the deck as the floor.

The title of the book refers to a terrible event that took place during the war on that date. Suffice it to say that this involves war crimes and Yugoslav partisans. It is about unrequited love, loyalty, guilt, and redemption. And it doesn’t end well.

If you can find a copy, recommended. I also found his A Child Possessed (1964) very moving. It won the W.H. Smith literary award in 1966.

Ray Coryton Hutchinson published 17 novels; he died in 1975, aged 68.

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