South By Java Head by Alistair MacLean (1958)

World War Two

At the end of World War Two MacLean was a sailor aboard HMS Royal and saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. This provided him with the broad setting for his third novel, the story of the attempts of a ragbag collection of civilians and soldiers to escape the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone, Java – three war novels one after the other.

The wartime setting allows free rein for MacLean’s distinguishing feature, Extremity: physical and psychological extremity. This is the state of the shell-shocked nurses, exhausted soldiers, the injured and wounded aboard the little freighter Kerry Dancer, or the experience-hardened captain and crew of the tanker Viroma who steer to their rescue, even before they are attacked by the Japanese – and the narrative propels them through ordeal after ordeal, far beyond the bounds of plausibility.

Something struck him with cruel, numbing force against his knee-caps. The boat, drifting upside down. He somersaulted in mid-air, struck his shoulder against the keel, landed flat on his back on the water on the other side with an explosive smack that drove all the breath out of his body, then was on his way again, propelled by a fear and a nameless anger such as he had never known before. The pain in his chest and his legs was another turn of the rack for every step he took, but he drove himself on remorselessly as if the fire in his legs and his body’s gasping demands for air simply did not exist. (Ch 12)

The heat inside struck at him with the physical impact of a violent blow, he could feel it engulf him, wash over him in a great wave of burning pain. The superheated air, starved now of its life-giving oxygen, seared down into his lungs like fire itself. He could smell his hair singeing almost immediately, and the tears flooded into his eyes and threatened to blind him. (Ch 14)

All three men were hurt, and badly: all of them had lost blood, Telak most of all, and no competent doctor would have hesitated to immobilise any of the three in hospital: but they ran all the way to Bantuk, across impossible, energy-sapping, heart-breaking terrain, never once breaking down into a walk. They ran with their hearts pounding madly under the inhuman strain, leaden legs fiery with the pain of muscles taxed far beyond endurance, chests rising and falling, rising and falling as starving lungs gasped for more and still more air, the sweat running off their faces in streams. (Ch 15)

Natural hazards

And inevitably, the natural world joins in the agony as a typhoon bears down on both ships – similar to the ferocious storms in Bear Island, Night Without End, HMS Ulysses, Fear Is the Key, making a difficult situation almost unendurable.

The Viroma was now thrusting north dead in the eye of the gale-force wind, and the heavy driving rain, strangely cold after the heat of the day, was sweeping almost horizontally fore and aft across the decks and the bridge, numbing his face with a thousand little lances, filling his eyes with pain and tears. Even with eyes screwed tight to the narrowest slits, the rain still stung and blinded: they were blind men groping in a blind world and the end of the world was where they stood. (Chapter 3)

First the escape through the ruined city; then the defeat of no boat being there, the reprieve of a rowboat arriving and escape to the Kerry; then murderous attack by Jap airplanes; then rescue by the Viroma in the midst of a fierce typhoon; then renewed attack by Jap planes which devastate the tanker killing most of its crew, the few survivors managing to escape into a lifeboat. And then – the opposite of the tropical typhoon – they are completely becalmed under a blistering tropical sun, for days on end as the food and then the water slowly run out, until crew members go literally mad, drinking sea water and then throwing themselves overboard to die.

Nicholson tried to thrust aside the nagging, dominating pains of thirst and swollen tongue and cracked lips and sunblistered back and to assess the complete change brought about by those terrible days that had elapsed since the storm had ended, endless, torturing hours under the pitiless lash of the sun, a sun at once dreadfully impersonal and malignant beyond belief, a sun that steadily grew more and more intolerable until it drove helpless, uncaring men over the edge of breakdown and collapse, physical, moral and mental. (Ch 10)

Permanent strain

At any moment the Japanese might attack. At any moment the full force of the storm might break on them. All nerves are tight as bowstrings, all men exhausted after prolonged strain. And thus the text continually explodes in hyperbolic exaggeration.

He broke off abruptly, fists clenching by his sides, as the klaxon above his head blared into sudden, urgent life, drowning his words as the raucous clangour, a harsh, discordant, shocking sound in a confined space, filled the dining-cabin. (Ch 5)

MacLean’s  texts take more or less time to warm up, but all of them aspire to this level of permanent boil, and then continue at fever pitch for the remaining 100, 150 pages.

Conclusion

This is an exhausting book, a sustained litany of physical suffering and endurance as MacLean submits his characters to an unrelenting series of ordeals which eventually become preposterous. No-one could have survived all these terrible events. But then these terrible events couldn’t have happened with the comic-book consistency described. I lost count of the number of times Everything was up – when the Jap sub corners them, when the Jap motor boat corners them, when the Japs arrest them in the native compound and so on – only to be rescued by a last-minute shoot-out, or an act of suicidal bravery by the heroic Brigadier Farnholme, or the defection of the German agent Van Effen who, at the last minute is so revolted by Jap brutality, that he saves the Brits. Right up to the final pages there are last-minute setbacks and last-minute reprieves.

For the first time the fear and anxiety swept through his mind like a wave, a fear that would have panicked his mind and an anxiety that would have wrecked his plans but he thrust them ruthlessly aside. (Ch 15)

But long before this point Java has left the realm of plausible literature and become a version of the boys’ Commando magazine in which plucky Brits battle against all the odds to save the day, to rescue the pretty girl and the small boy and the old lady from the hands of the fiendish Japs. You can tell the Japs are baddies: our men are tall and dignified, like the self-sacrificing Brigadier, whereas

Colonel Kiseki occupied the ornate, high-backed chair of honour at the top of the table, a short, massive man of tremendous girth, with his neck bulging out over his tight uniform collar, tiny, porcine eyes almost hidden in folds of fleh, and very short hair, grey at the temples, sticking up from the top of his round head like the bristles of a wire brush. His face was flushed with alcohol and empty bottles littered the table in front of him… (Ch 15)

Java is the worst early MacLean book, the one where all the elements are on display but not arranged correctly. There is a thread of sorts – all along Farnholme has been smuggling secret Japanese war plans – but it is not enough to justify the relentless series of ordeals and escapades the characters are put through. In the later books there will be several adjustments & improvements:

  • the suffering which MacLean excels at describing will be better justified by the plot
  • the plot itself will
    • be more focused
    • have more rhythm ie there will be lulls for the hero to recuperate, consider his plans and adjust to new developments
    • contain one big unexpected twist
  • the narrative will focus on one person; in this book several of the Viroma’s officers perform heroically and Nicholson only slowly emerges as the leading character; MacLean will learn that it is psychologically more effective for the reader to have just the one hero to focus on

War in peace

Java confirms the insight that the later thrillers perform the simple manoeuvre of transferring the unbearable tension and extreme violence of wartime into peacetime settings. The agent or hero of a thriller effectively carries around in his vicinity his own mini-war.

In which case the author’s task becomes putting the agent through a succession of challenges, perilous situations and unexpected twists which continually justify the maintenance of this hi-tension, almost hysterical atmosphere, but without losing the focus of a consistent plot-line or end goal.

MacLean incorporates all these lessons into the next book, The Last Frontier, about a British agent on the run in communist Hungary. It is still not a classic though, because the formula hasn’t quite been perfected: a) MacLean includes quite a lot of political/philosophical reflection in Frontier, which readers didn’t like; b) it is still told in the third person (though strongly leaning towards providing insights into the hero’s (generally extreme) state of mind).

It is when MacLean realises we have to be inside the hero’s mind, in a first person narration, and that reflections extraneous to the plot must be ruthlessly ditched, that all the elements of the formula click into place, and MacLean goes on to write the dozen or so classic thrillers which are so very effective and compelling.

Related links

Cover of the 1972 Fontana paperback edition of South By Java Head

Cover of the 1972 Fontana paperback edition of South By Java Head

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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