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Friday 23 April 2021

THE AERODROME - Book review


This is one of the 99 Novels that Anthony Burgess recommended in 1984 (Ninety-Nine Novels, Allison & Busby); this edition, 1982, also includes an introduction by Burgess comparing favourably it to Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four which was published eight years after The Aerodrome (1941).

Burgess considers the village represents fallen man, reflecting ‘the wretched or joyful human condition’. While outside the village is the ‘great aerodrome dedicated to cleanliness and efficiency. It is a self-sufficient totalitarian state with its eyes on the air not on the earth.’

Rex Warner explains that he does not aim at realism and considers both worlds (the village and the aerodrome) repulsive.

At the heart of the story is the narrator, Roy, who has attained his eighteenth birthday only to learn that the Rector, the man he considered his father was not, after all. A few subsidiary characters have names but not much description – Tom, George and Mac, for example. Yet we’re not made aware of the names of the remainder, the more significant characters: the Rector, the Rector’s wife, the Squire, the Squire’s daughter, the Flight-Lieutenant, the Air Vice-Marshal and the Landlord. However, the Landlord’s daughter is blessed with a name: Bess. Roy is drawn to her. And the sub-title of the book tells us why: it’s ‘a love story.’

Disillusioned, parentless, Roy seeks solace in the arms of Bess. Yet a further betrayal is not very far away, involving the Flight-Lieutenant.

There are several mysteries to be resolved: the Rector’s confession of murder; Roy’s true parents; Bess’s birth-right; the Flight-Lieutenant’s past… There are some twists towards the end, too. Interwoven are farcical scenes, the Flight-Lieutenant riding the bull Slazenger and the drunken revelries, and also some poignant moments too.

The Air Vice-Marshal is an unbending martinet who demands obedience from his men. He has plans for the village and even the country. He has a very low opinion of most of the population: ‘We shall destroy what we cannot change!’ (p223)

As for Roy, initially he was besotted with the Air Force and its charismatic leader, the Air Vice-Marshal; so much so that he is willingly recruited. He excels in his training and is ideal material for promotion. Yet, in time, the scales fall from his eyes: ‘It was as though there had been something in me like snow and ice which were now melting  and gradually revealing a landscape whose outlines I had not seen for some time and barely remembered.’ (p245)

This is an unusual imaginative study of power and human nature.

Thursday 22 April 2021

THE RUNNER - Book review


Christopher Reich’s period thriller has the strapline ‘Fatherland meets The Day of the Jackal in the thriller of the year.’ For a change, the publicity isn’t an exaggeration. It’s only taken me 21 years to get round to reading this one, just sitting on the shelf waiting; it was published in 2000.

It’s July 1945 and the war is over. Erich Seyss, who had been an accomplished runner in the 1936 Olympics is a captured SS officer in a POW camp awaiting trial by the War Crimes Commission – until he boldly escapes.

Devlin Judge, a lawyer with the International Military Tribunal learns of the escape shortly after finding out that Seyss was responsible for his brother Francis’s murder along with other American soldiers, all massacred in cold blood at Malmedy. Judge requests seven days’ leave to hunt down Seyss.

On a couple of occasions he comes close to catching his man, but the ex-SS officer is too quick, too fleet of foot to be trapped. During the hunt, Judge suspects that there is a conspiracy at the heart of the American military hierarchy that could pitch Europe into another deadly conflict. Of relevance to the allusion of The Day of the Jackal is the Potsdam Conference which was held in Potsdam, Germany, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. The participants were the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, represented respectively by Premier Joseph Stalin, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, and President Harry S. Truman…

One of Judge’s contacts happens to be Ingrid, one-time lover and jilted fiancĂ© of Seyss. She too gets sucked into the gripping quest in which it is sometimes difficult to determine friend from foe.

Reich tells his tale with masses of period detail, plenty of action, in an authoritative style that makes the story believable. The descriptions of a bomb-blasted Berlin and the scrabbling survivors living from hand-to-mouth put the reader there. There is some clever blending of fact with lashings of fiction. He has a good turn of phrase, too: ‘She smiled, and the smile was like the first crack in a pane of glass. She could feel the fissure splintering inside of her, its veins shooting off in every direction. It was only a matter of time until she shattered.’ (p456)

The publisher of the paperback (Hodder Headline) excelled here, not only showing the runner on the front cover resembling the swastika, but also having inserted at the bottom of each page the silhouette of a runner in different poses; if you flick the pages from the beginning of the book to the end, you will see the silhouetted figure running from left to right. (see below) Neat.