Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Boat - Lothar-Gunther Buchheim

 Of the 41,000 German submariners who served in World War II , 26,000 never returned.

 It seems appropriate to follow up the Twentieth Century's greatest anti-war novel with another. The Boat is undoubtedly an anti-war novel even though it is a vivid description of life on board a German u-boat during World War Two. It is of course better known in it's German name, Das Boot, and also as the quite brilliant film of the same name. You of those who have watched the film will have a fair idea of what to expect from the novel. But where the film is superb the novel goes beyond.

Is this really literature you may ask? Well to me it is. Not all novels are Dickens, Tolstoy, Defoe, Austen, etc, etc, etc. And not all the great novels, and literature, were written exclusively in the 18th and 19th centuries. The writer of The Boat, Lothar-Gunther Buchheim actually served on a u-boat patrol as a war correspondent. He is loosely portrayed in the film. Where Buchheim's novel is so good is that he is also a very accomplished writer. He has published numerous non-fictional works on the u-boat war that are as highly acknowledged as this novel. So he is in a position of authority, backed with writing skills that he uses to great effect in The Boat.

 Also where I regard The Boat as true literature is Buchheim's use of words to describe life on board a u-boat, albeit in fictionalised form. The most vivid memory I took away from this novel is the sea. I have read many a novel of the sea but Buchheim has the reader standing on the conning tower being covered in spray, and with the smell of salt in their nostrils. But even better for me it was how he has the ability to describe the colour of the sea, and the sounds the water makes against the boat. Translucent, trandescent, etc,etc, as the sea changes colour each day as if in a new mood. I could hear and see the prow of the boat smoothly slicing through the water, and the wake. The colour and sluicing sound as the boat then passed through it. The Boat may be essential a war novel but there is incredible beauty inter-posed with the horror of combat.

 In one section the Atlantic throws a week long gale, and again the vividness is remarkable. When the boat surfaces those inside are tossed around like rag dolls, and everything loose with them. You can just hear the clangs of metal hitting metal, the grunts as men are tossed and injured, and above all the roar of the angry ocean against the side of the boat ,and the whistle of the wind through the hatch. Those on the conning tower can't hear each other shouting but Buchheim certainly lets it be known what it was like to stand up top in such conditions. Harrowing, terrifying, and yet strangely magnificent as mother nature vented her anger. Buchheim writes of the crews fear, awe and utter respect of the sea.

Whilst the sea dominates their lives, and is only half of their enemy besides the allied navies, the living conditions on board are equalled in description. Live on board a u-boat wasn't pleasant. The almost putrid conditions and smell are almost smellable by the reader. Thirty plus men in a confined place who can't wash or shave for weeks on end was pretty disgusting. They themselves lost the ability to smell the stench as they lived with, but when they returned to base the onshore work crews were appalled by the smell and extremely reluctant to go on board. Not only was there unwashed bodies but the smell of diesel, spoiling rations, the toilet, and any number of oils, grease etc, needed for the machinery. In short it was a close, confined hell.

 It was a hell that got worse when the depth charges started to rain down. Again the close confined space is extenuated as Buchheim lets the reader see the sweat of fear on the men's faces. The attacks could take hours and the air grew stale and again the reader is all but breathing it themselves. It is an amazing reading experience, and one of the very few where I have all but found myself involved physically in its pages. We have all seen submarine movies, and heard the depth charges, but Buchheim can describe the whole ordeal in ways the site and sound of film can't. He places you in there, and you hear, feel, and smell the whole works.

 A mis-conception of many submarine movies in particular is the impression of constant combat and action. Nothing could be further from the truth, as much of the time spent on patrol was mundane and boring. The crews had to have incredible discipline to stand each other in such a confined space for weeks on end. Boredom was a huge problem and many crew members wanted the chance to go up top and be on watch just to get out of the submarine. Watch duty was extremely boring but critical to the safety of the submarine. Buchheim vividly describes the duty and how the crew members held their binoculars in a certain so to mirror the movement of the boat. Those on watch duty were only allowed two hours on so as to avoid complacency, and in bad weather to give the men the chance to get warm and dry again. The routine was the same, and very rarely inter-posed with moments of action.

 When they came though it was quick and brutal. The depth-charging is a known fact in submarine actions. They generally followed an action where the u-boat had sunk a ship or ships. The book superbly illustrates for the reader the lead up to a sinking. It is like reading the hunter and the prey. It is slow and tense reading, but incredibly gripping. Sometimes the u-boats were discovered before able to let off a torpedo and the action had to be abandoned. Again the realism is startling and the reader can only marvel at Buchheim's ability to portray it so realistically  without involving too much technical jargon. It is certainly a book that is never dull even when he is describing the routine details of daily life. You would imagine that a handful of men in a small u-boat would make for limited scope in a novel but The Boat confounds this thinking.

 This is certainly one of the great war novels. It is also one of the great anti-war novels. But it is also a unique snapshot into the lives of a handful of men fighting in an odious cause for an odious leader. The Kriegsmarine was well known even within Nazi Germany to be relatively Nazi free in sentiment ( Hitler never really understood naval matters and generally left the Kriegsmarine alone. He always thought though that it was too 'Christian' in sentiment, a throw back to its earlier days, and would take many years to be properly 'national socialised'. ). Buchheim at no time attempts any political angle in the novel. He lets the feeling of the crew towards the regime be known through their own words. In most parts of Germany such freedom of speech was immediately dealt with by a visit from the Gestapo. U-boat crews almost unconsciously exempted themselves from this as most members shared the same views, putting their duty, and comrades first, over their individual political affiliations or views. Tale telling was not a common practise. The Boat if anything is more than just another submarine book. It is about men and the horrors of the war they fought in.

 I recommend this novel over any other I have read about naval combat. The Cruel Sea and H.M.S Ulysses were very good novels, and well deserving of praise. But The Boat out-shines them in every way. You don't have to be a military afficianado to appreciate the novel,  just a reader who wishes to know and understand life on board a German U-boat during World War Two. The descriptions are vivid, and at times very palpable. They put you as a reader into the u-boat and all its trials and tribulations. Also it will put you into the minds of the crew and their feelings of duty over politics. This is important to understand with the backdrop of Nazism. At the end you understand more the anti-war sentient and also realise that not all Germans during the last war supported the regime but still done their duty.

 A truly great read, and one I recommend to all whether it is your genre or not. Leon Uris is in my opinion the best writer of historical fiction ever. The Boat is in this realm of superb historicalness within a fictionalised form. Uris of course wrote more fictional novels than Buchheim, and is acknowledged for his research and realism. Where Buchheim has the solitary edge over him in just this one novel is the fact he was there. The over-all difference being Uris described events of a bigger historical nature, whereas Buchheim has described a solitary u-boat patrol within the bigger context of The Battle of the Atlantic.

Click here for my review on the brilliant film adaptation:

  Read the book and watch the movie, as both are equally brilliant and un-forgettable.
This is a blog about fiction, but if any of you are interested in reading some more on the u-boats then a reasonable book to start with is David Westwood - The U-boat War. It is just above layman's ability but is still quite authoritative without being too complex. There are many, many good non-fictional works on the u-boats and The Battle of the Atlantic it comes down to being selective as it is a huge subject alone within the vastness that is the Second World War.

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