Friday, October 28, 2011
The novel is called a 'war' novel and yet I think that too simplistic. Sure it is based in 1944 Britain on the eve of D-Day, but it is more a psychological drama within a military setting. The plot involves a tough American soldier, Major John Reisman who has undertaken behind enemy lines missions, given another. But this is one with a real difference. This time he has to train twelve men from within American military prisons awaiting trial for various misdemeanors, from theft, to rape, and murder. What follows is an extraordinary novel of his attempts to meld this disparate bunch, full of hatred and prejudices, into a fully fit, functioning military unit.
As stated the novel is not a war novel per se. 90% of it is involved in the training of this so called 'dirty dozen' and the trials and tribulation the Major faces. But whilst the training is one huge part of the novel it really is the twelve individual characters and personalities of the men that is the central focus. It is almost part crime novel wrapped around a military setting. The dozen are all from different back grounds and situations. But they are not all former civilian world criminals. Each has their own story to tell as to how they ended up in the stockade. Nathanson tells each man's story through out the narrative. His characterisations are superbly realised with each becoming all too real for the reader.
Some of them are straight out repulsive. Others we have a shred of sympathy for. And one the reader feels sure is innocent, until the finale reveals he isn't. As their training for their suicide mission starts the reader is instantly thrown into how difficult a task it is going to be. To make the mission a success the dozen must work as team and trust one another. All good military units must do this to be successful. What happens is the twelve splinter off into groups that snipe and grizzle about each other. God they behaved like little children!!
We swing from a red-neck, an intelligent and educated negro who is there after a race fueled man slaughter, a sex offender, a young boy like man who is up on a charge of rape and murder ( he is seemingly innocent but finds out during the mission he isn't, as his own flash backs are revealed under the stress of combat ). A quiet but hugely built Red Indian, and several compulsive thieves and liars. But the two main protagonists out of the group are the red-neck and the negro. The red neck attempts to alienate him, all the while the Major tries to induce him into a leadership role. Suffice to say whilst the dozen hate and despise each other they hate and despise the authority of the Major!!
The psychological battles are superbly written. This battle of wills is the reason behind the name 'dirty dozen' . At one stage the group all agree not to shave in response to one of Reisman's orders. He lets it go and the twelve quickly become dirty and smelly. But they finally do shave just on the eve of the mission. The dozen during training overall swing between individuals wanting to fit in, do the mission and gain their pardons. Whilst others just have no social skills or understanding and are real pains in the arse. Sounds just like real life and what we all face in the work force doesn't it?!! The Major has his work cut out and the way he coerces , threatens, conjoles and kicks the twelve into shape is brilliant. But he has his doubts as to their final abilities to do the job. After all he has been given a very short period of time in which to lick the twelve into shape.
The most interesting parts for me was when Major Reisman finally teaches the men hand to hand combat. These ruffians take to it like a bull to a red flag. Their almost animal instincts come the fore and they excel at beating each up using martial arts!! The funny thing is that as they get more proficient at it they don't start on each other after training is over. They realise they have been well taught and are fairly evenly matched. This is the slight turning of the corner and the next test is actually being given real weapons. The Major teaches them how to use various firearms such as pistols and sub-machine guns. But due to the fear they will turn on him and the guards, they are strictly monitored, and carry around the weapons unloaded on exercises. They are only issued personal live ammunition for the mission!
Yes if they all weren't such dubious, to repulsive characters, it would be funny. But these are grown men behaving like little children. Even though this is a novel I found my temper rising as did Major Reisamn's!! How he didn't kill any of those shits is beyond me! But this is the novel's core. He uses psychology to win them over whilst trying to get through to them that it is either, see out their individual sentences, or pull together and do the assigned mission. It is incredible that even with such a simple fact hanging over their heads some of them just wouldn't let it penetrate.
Suffice to say the dozen with Reisamn are packed off to France on the eve of D-Day. Here the mission is played out. And yet it isn't narrative driven as such, more in the form of an after action report. It isn't particularly long taking up only about 40 out of the novel's 600 pages. As stated this isn't a war novel, and if you have seen the film and not read the novel, it will give you a false impression as to what the novel is about. This is a novel that is very much psychology based. it is an unsettling look into the disparate minds of those who fall to the bottom of societies rung, where they have delved into theft, murder, rape and other unsavoury ways.
I highly recommend this novel. If you don't read war novels as such don't be put off by this a because it isn't strictly speaking a war novel. Just as the recently reviewed The Crusader wasn't strictly speaking just a novel about the Crusades The Dirty Dozen uses the back drop of WW II for this masterful novel. At 607 pages it is good, satisfying, meaty, read. I just wonder why it is that more modern novelists can't seem to write novels of such breadth and epicness like this anymore.
This is a true classic that is crying out for a decent film adaptation. The film is OK as a war film but I object to it being called The Dirty Dozen. It takes the premise of twelve condemned prisoners and butchers the best part of the novel. I found Lee Marvin mis-cast as Major Reisman because the novel's Reisamn, whilst hard in front of the prisoners, was actually an articulate man with doubts, anxieties and lingering memories from his behind enemy lines missions.
The last word here is that the novel is very loosely based on an American soldier and his unit which served in the famed 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles. He was involved in numerous scrapes with authority even though having a distinguished fighting record. Click below for a link to him, his unit, and how he came to be the basis of E.M. Nathanson's fine, commendable, classic novel.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Like all novels in a library I just pulled it out of the shelf on a whim. And yet as soon as I saw that cover I instantly knew it was going home with me. This is Jesse Bullington's debut novel and just on the strength of this cover I also brought home his second novel The Enterprise of Death. Now be warned neither novel is for the faint hearted, easily offended or the squeamish!! Seriously these two novels are bawdy, gross, graphic, blasphemous, bloodthirsty and just sheer straight out fun!!
If you cross Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro with the Brothers Grimm then this is what you would get. What Jesse Bullington has done is re-imagined the Middle Ages with its inherent mythology and ignorance and turned it into a Grimm's Fairy Tale for adults. T. H .White done a similar re-imagining of the Middle ages and the Tale of King Arthur in his magisterial masterpiece The Once and Future King. But Bullington's vision is much darker and plays heavily on the ignorance of the times.
So what's it about? In essence it is about two brothers from the region of West Germany in the mid-13th century. They are a couple of ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, uncouth, bawdy murderous swine who can't see what low lifes they are!! After they murder a young family at the start of the novel, these two grave robbers by profession decide to go south and attempt to get to Egypt, where they have grand designs on the tombs there. On the way, and in between their internecine bickering, the two brothers encounter all manner of vile creatures. All lifted straight from Middle Age ignorance and mythology of which the Brothers Grimm immortalised so well.
There are witches, demons, fallen priests, a mermaid and that demon again! Included is copious amounts of vomiting, cursing, killing, grossness and other goings on. The first creature they met confounds the brothers and the reader isn't quite sure what it is. Suffice to say the brothers kill it but nor before one is infected by touching the creature's fur. The healthy brother carries him to a near by house which is inhabited by a witch. Well from here on the novel really opens up and throws out all stops in it gross and lewdness! The witch says to the healthy brother she will cure the sick brother only if he 'services' her! The brother confesses to being a good catholic and doesn't believe in sex before marriage. He is too embarased to admit he is a virgin in other words!
The dumb Grossbart actually believes he and his brother are good men who have been done wrong. The witch seemingly accepts this, but tricks him into drinking a potion that makes her appear sexually desirable to him, even though her appearance is the same. What follows is a hilarious sexscapade as the brother ' services ' the ugly old hag in all sorts of ways. No orifice is left untouched and no position untried!. At once stage he ' services ' her with his tongue and as he is doing so the potion wears off! Imagine the vomiting that occurred!! When she then offers him some food that he rejects she quite tells him he had just ' eaten ' worse!! Well if this scene puts you off then this novel is not for you and you should stay clear of it!!
From here the dastardly brothers encounter a shape changing demon which they nearly kill. In the process it harbours a grudge against the two. It, and the father of the young murdered family, join forces and pursue the brothers all the way to Egypt, and a final confrontation. But before that the brothers pick up a fallen priest who debates theology with them. These two numb nuts honestly believe they are the height of religious fervour and consider themselves holier than the Pope! It is hilarious as the two squabble among themselves as to who is holier than the other. On the way they pick up an unusual female passenger who has a mysterious voice that lures men to the nearest water.
Of course she is a mermaid and her ' owner ' is going south as well. On the way several men die mysteriously in very small pools of water. Later the brothers are rid of her mid-Mediterranean and eat her tail!! But before this bawdy sea faring expedition the book hits a palpable flat spot. It is my only criticism of the novel. Once the brothers hit Italy and find lodgings the book slows right down for about 5 or 6 chapters. When in Italy almost nothing happens except for a few fights and an encounter with an Arab who can't speak his own language. I slogged my way through these chapters and it really brought the otherwise swift narrative to a screaming halt. Unfortunately once the Brothers leave Italy it takes the reader a while to get back into the swing of the novel and its bawdiness. This is unfortunate because the ship bound scene is quite good but as the reader is just getting their swing back it ends.
The brothers are now in Egypt and create all sorts of blasphemes against Islam as they seemingly mount there own two man Crusade( ably helped by their warped priest friend who has now deified the pair!! ). The novel ends with them vanquishing the disgruntled demon and father who have been pursuing them. But not before one final grave robbery which goes wrong and the brothers are entombed, but still bickering!!
This is one of the most astonishingly original novels I have ever read! It is NOT for all tastes though! I kid you not. If you are easily offended then steer well clear of this, Jesse Bullington's debut novel. But if you are extremely open minded and want something totally original then I recommend this no end. You will grossed out and yet laugh about it at the same time. The only let down is the way the novel comes to a screeching halt about half way through and goes off the boil. It comes back on later, but reading the chapters in between was a real chore.
Stunning just stunning in its originality, bawdiness, and general slap in the face to political correctness. If you are open minded enough then you just cannot pass up the chance to read this novel. Bullington's next novel is just as gross and bawdy, and if anything even stronger.
Amazon has this with 4/5 stars from 42 customer reviews. I'd agree with that and would have given it a perfect 5, if it wasn't for the slack part in the middle, which slowed the novel down.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
I will state now I'm not an expert!! I did do several papers that had Crusades content for uni and have read a few books, but I'm more a buff than a serious aficionado. Anyway I'm not averse to reading a novel that is based during those times. In fact any decent look through your public library will undoubtedly unearth a plethora of Crusade based novels ( certainly the two Holy Orders of the Hospitallers and Templars alone are juicy ground for a novelist ). My own public library has many but you know the old proverb..too many books and not enough time.Honestly I would need 20 lifetimes to read even half of what I would want too!
I read Michael Eisner's 2003 novel The Crusader when I brought it new several years ago. I have actually gone back to reading non-fiction for the time being. And yet this is such a light easy read I whipped through it in between the non-fiction stuff. Over the last few years I have read a few reviews on this novel and opinions vary widely. I suppose that can be said about any novel. But I have taken an interest in this because I like the novel and don't consider it as dull as so many do.
The story revolves around the experiences of a Spanish Knight's Crusade in the Holy Land. It is based in the later half of the 13th century and is a well imagined, clearly writen novel. After his brother Sergio drowns on his way to the Holy Land with 500 other knights, main protagonist Francisco de Montcada dedicates himself to the Cross. Reported dead after the siege and loss of the great crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers, Montcada returns to Spain a wreck and shadow of his former self. Seemingly possessed he is chained in a Cistercian monastery's dungeon. There Monk Brother Lucas attempts to get Montcada to speak of his experiences. In the process he hopes to earn the reward Montcada's wealthy father has offered for his son's recovery.
When he starts to speak he begins with his brother, his strong, confident cousin Andres, and his sister Isabel. Montcada tells of slowly falling in love in her before he goes off to train in Catatrava to become a knight before departing for the Holy Land. The novel artfully balances Montcada's reminisces and a sub-plot involving Brother Lucas and his dreams of glory within the Church. What transpires is a tale of salvation that not only concerns the mind of Montcada but of Brother Lucas as well. Montcada's tale involves an encounter at the Krak with Don Fernando who has subsequently risen to high authority with the church. It transpires Fernando conspired to keep Montcada imprisoned by the Muslims and keep his secrets safe.
Suffice to say good conquers the evil hypocrisy of Don Fernando with Brother Lucas gets his reward and desires in the process. I liked this as an historical novel and especially its structure. The way Eisner bounces back and forth through history and the lives of his characters is fantastic. Whilst not strictly speaking a Crusades novel it uses it as a backdrop to what transpires between Don Fernando and Brother Lucas. There are only two somewhat short battle scenes of which the first involves Montcada and his cousin Andres storming a Muslim held castle. It is well realised and very vividly written The second is a great scene of the Muslim investment and subsequent capture of Krak de Chevalier, which is based on real events.
The scenes where Montcada is imprisoned in a Muslim dungeon are excellent and the reader can feel his fear and despair. This is especially so as one by one his fellow prisoners either die, or are taken out of the pit because their ransoms have been paid by rich relatives. But for me the highlight of the novel is the broken spirit of Montcada. Eisner has graphically written of a man who is completely broken and seemingly possessed. It is a novel that shows how historically mental health and well being were unknown in the Middle Ages. Any sign of brokenness was mis-construed as possession. Of course today Montcada's condition would be identified as untreated post traumatic stress ( or in old parlance shell shock ).
So yes if you like historical fiction and the Crusades in particular, then this is for you. It isn't a hack and slash Crusades novel as such, but uses them as a backdrop to a sub-plot involving corruption within the church. It isn't an overly long novel and is quickly read but there is enough meat to satisfy. I liked how Michael Eisner cleverly jumps between time frames, from the present, back to past, and back again. In the process he tells the tale of two men who serve the cross and how their lives have crossed with each having a different tale to tell.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
|Outside of Schwerin, Germany, 1945.|
Everything Flows was written in 1961 and considered a threat to the regime as well. Like Life and Fate it was suppressed and Grossman became a virtual non-person. He died in 1964 of stomach cancer not knowing whether his two major novels would ever be read. But thanks to fellow dissidents his manuscripts were copied and smuggled out the USSR. The pages were photographed from surviving drafts and was retyped containing many spelling errors and mis-readings due to the poor quality of the photos.. But as it was Life and Fate was still published in Switzerland in 1980. It wasn't published in the USSR until 1989 under the Glasnost era of Mikhail Gorbachev. Then further original manuscripts were uncovered and the edition was revised and re-published in 1989. Like Life and Fate Everything Flows underwent similar treatment and was also published in the USSR in 1989.
Life and Fate is considered by many to be semi-biographical in nature. The character Viktor Shtrum is according to Robert Chandler the novel's English translator ' a portrait of the author himself'. I have actually got a copy of the novel here to read, but at over 600 pages I thought I read Everything Flows first. At only 226 pages it is relatively short and I managed to finish it in two nights. But don't fool yourself into thinking that a short novel can have nothing to say, because this is one of the most devastating novels on inhumanity you will ever read.
The novel is noted for its quiet, unforced, and quite horrifying condemnation of the Soviet totalitarian state. Funnily enough when you look at the era he wrote this in his banishment and non-person status enabled him to write such a work without fear of reprisal. Right throughout he writes with honesty on Soviet history. In 226 pages he encompasses life in the Gulags, the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33 in which scholars are still debating the number of deaths involved. Suffice to say they ran into the millions and many consider it as great a crime as the Holocaust.
He looks at the life of Lenin and lays the blame of the Stalin era on his shoulders more so than on Stalin's. But he goes back even further pointing out Russia for 1000 years was a country that was all but a slave state. In essence he is saying that the then current climate was a situation of Russia's own making. The saddest thing was the so-called denunciations the population were encouraged to engage in. For no other reason than petty mindedness. Grossman looks at all the types of characters who denounced their families, friends, and neighbours. It is very similar in nature to what happened in Germany under the Nazi's. He quietly exposes that there wasn't one type of person involved, or anyone rational behind their actions. They lived in a climate of utter control and fear that drove them to such actions. It is just so sad that totally innocent people, in their millions, died under such a regime.
And this is Grossman's point regarding the totalitarian state. Communism was meant to be the liberator of the people. And yet the very people it was meant to help were the very ones who suffered the most. In one chapter Grossman writes of villages and peasants in the Ukraine who died in their millions simply because the state didn't believe that that years wheat crop had failed. The state went in and confiscated the next years wheat seeds and took anything else edible in the process. Apparently the dust clouds from all the wagons taking away this booty were huge and could be seen for miles around. What is even more appalling was those who came in quickly became aware that the crop had failed and yet were indifferent to the peasants fate as they had their orders. In other words if the Party said the peasants lied and were holding back grain then they were. So much for communism being for the workers or even ' the people '!!
I liked this novel immensely. In only 200 + pages Grossman has written a quietly damning indictment on the Stalinist Soviet Union. The incredible power of the book is how so understated Grossman writes and describes the events. With so much horror around him one would think he would be full of hatred and venom. But the opposite is true. With incredible subtly Grossman conveys to the reader how the Party had crushed the life and will out of the people. They quite honestly couldn't resist. The sad thing is that millions went to their deaths completely innocent of any wrong doing. Their only crime was the State's mania for thinking that anyone at all was a potential criminal, and hence dangerous. It was absurd thinking.
If you have an interest in 20th Century history, or in particular Soviet history, then Vasily Grossman's novel is required reading. It is quite simply a soul destroying read that quietly takes the reader into a very sad period of history. The deaths of the millions just boggles the mind. I found it almost beyond comprehension. I have read reviews that found this a depressing read. Personally if a reader feels this way then they fail to see Grossman's point. The point being one of indifference. Indifference to the unnecessary death and suffering of millions for a system that was touted as the saviour of the those suppressed for generations.
For me this is one of the saddest most emotionally powerful novels I have ever read. It is beautifully translated and reads very well in English. At times though the translation felt a bit too clean and clinical. I would have liked to have felt some ' Russian-ness ' in the text. It is a slight thing really because overall this is a must read novel. Honestly, we of today's generation have just got no comprehension of what the 20th Century produced in Stalin. But Stalin's crimes were only a precursor of Hitler's to come.
Highly, highly recommended. It is an easy read and one that will destroy your emotions in the process.