Illuminating India @ the Science Museum

Illuminating India

Illuminating India is a season of exhibitions and events being held at London’s Science Museum to celebrate India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.

At its heart are two FREE major exhibitions: 5,000 Years of Science and Innovation and Photography 1857–2017. The first consists of one large room presenting a history of scientific breakthroughs in India; the second consists of three exhibition spaces presenting a selection of photography from its arrival in India in the 1830s through to the present day.

In addition to the exhibitions there’s a season of India-themed events, including film screenings, music and dance performances, conversations with experts and more.

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Photography in India: 1857-2017

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  1. Power and Performance
  2. Art and Independence
  3. Modern and Contemporary

(I am often struck by how exhibitions and books about the arts must have alliterative titles cf. the Passion, Power and Politics exhibition just across the road at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

1. Power and Performance

Shortly after its invention in Britain in 1839, photography arrived in India. It was used to document the people and places of the vast sub-continent and as a record of colonial conflicts, particularly of the great Mutiny of 1857. It’s this the show opens with, presenting photographs of the ruined garrisons at some of the key battlefields of the Uprising, such as Cawnpore and Delhi. There’s a map and history briefly explaining the background and course of the Uprising.

Photos were taken by British officers like John Murray, but I was struck to learn that some were taken by Felice Beato, who I came across for his photos of the First Opium War. He was one of the first war photographers and generally staged his photos to conform to artistic conventions.

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are photos of Bahadur Shah Zafar who was rather forced into becoming a figurehead for the rebels which meant that, when the Uprising was finally quelled, members of his family were executed and he – the last descendant of the Mughal emperors – was deposed.

The heyday of imperial control of India was from about 1860 to 1900 and this is reflected in the work of British photographers like Samuel Bourne and Maurice Vidal Portman. Bourne accompanied expeditions up into the Himalayas where he took breath-taking panoramas of the spectacular views, some of which were made up into books and sold to armchair explorers. Photos and bound books of them are on display here.

Portman was a fascinating character, a naval officer who was put in charge of the Andaman Islands and their inhabitants at the age of 19! He was tasked with managing the islands and their inhabitants at a time when several prison camps were established for those imprisoned by the Raj in India. Over the next twenty years he took numerous photos of the native Andamanese, for the British Government and the British Museum.

Portman got to know the natives well and wrote two books on their languages as well as building up a significant collection of ethnographic objects during his time on the Andaman Islands which are now in the British Museum. The selection of his work here emphasises the sinister application of photography, used to photograph islanders from the front and side on, alongside measuring their facial features, skull shape and size and so on, all part of the late 19th century obsession with race.

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Meanwhile, a completely different genre grew up which adapted the colour palette  of traditional Indian painting to the new technology: basically, photographs of Indians which were then extensively touched up or painted over to create a distinctive hybrid form.

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

There are lots of examples of this kind of thing, depicting many of India’s 700 or so ‘princes’, images which were made for them as portraits but also reversioned in books, used in family ‘cabinets’ or made into postcards for their subjects to buy. The style carried on well into the 20th century as the example at the top of this review demonstrates.

2. Art and Independence

As cameras got smaller and cheaper more Indians were able to set up as commercial and even art photographers. This second section is sub-divided into two: examples of native photographers (Art) and a roomful of photos devoted to portraying Gandhi and Indian Independence (Independence).

The photographer Shapoor N. Bhedwar is represented by a suite of photographs depicting middle-class Indian life at the turn of the century. His studied compositions clearly borrow from the conventions of late Victorian painting.

'The Mystic Sign' from the 'Art Studies' album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

‘The Mystic Sign’ from the ‘Art Studies’ album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

A wall is devoted to works by a photographer called Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II who developed an approach based on self-portraits taken over many years, in a variety of guises and Indian costumes.

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

The second part of this section is devoted to photographs depicting the very end of the career of Mahatma Gandhi, including his funeral, along with photos of the independence on India in 1947 and of the ruinous partition of the sub-continent.

Gandhi was well aware of the importance of imagery in the ‘modern’ world (of the 1930s and 40s). As the curators point out, it’s no mistake that at the end of his life he was being accompanied by not one but two of the pre-eminent photojournalists of the day, Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose works are liberally represented.

The curators take the opportunity to juxtapose these two super well-known westerners with works by India’s first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla.

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

3. Modern and Contemporary

The next space is also sub-divided. The first room contains lots of images from the 1950s and 60s. Gandhi had campaigned on a platform of returning India to its spiritual roots and to an economy based on self-sufficiency and village crafts. But the first prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (PM from 1947 to 1964) took diametrically the opposite view and set about transforming India into a modern industrialised economy, along with nuclear power and its own space programme.

Hence a wall of wonderful black-and-white photos taken by Werner Bischof and Madan Mahatta of industrial landscapes, building sites, railroad sidings, power plants. A kind of sub-set of these was a couple of b&w photos taken Lucien Hervé. Looking him up on Wikipedia I discover he was French but of Hungarian origin, and I wonder if that accounts for the highly constructivist style of the photos, which remind me of the Bauhaus style of his great compatriot, László Moholy-Nagy.

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

In the next room we come to big colour photos from the 1980s onwards. Two names stand out, Rajhibir Singh and an American called Mitch Epstein. Epstein worked in films and took a cinematic approach to staging and lighting his large, bold compositions. He was, apparently, part of a movement called American New Colour.

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

New Indian Photography

In the final room was a generous selection from the work of three contemporary Indian photographers. As with most art nowadays, it’s not enough to just paint a painting or take a photo, you have to devise a project.

Sohrab Hura (Indian b.1981) worked on a ‘two-chapter’ personal project called Sweet Life from 2005 to 2014. Chapter 1, Life Is Elsewhere (2005 to 2011), focuses on his relationship with his mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A second chapter, Look, It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! (2008 to 2014) chronicles the improvement of her mental health. An extensive selection from both works is shown on a video screen, along with accompanying commentary.

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) is represented by a wall of photos which represent, or hint at, the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai. At one time India’s ‘city of dreams’, according to the wall label an increasingly reactionary political movement in Mumbai has led to the recriminalisation of homosexuality. Hence Arthur’s photos try to capture marginal places and private moments where this now-subterranean sub-culture can be seen, or at least inferred.

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Vasantha Yogananthan (b.1985) had the bright idea of retelling the ancient Hindu epic poem the Ramayana through contemporary photos, and titling the (ongoing) series, A Myth of Two Souls. Thus two walls of large colour photos by him show images which are completely contemporary in feel, but which have captions quoting from key moments in the ancient story.

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananth

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

As a set, these were probably the most consistently interesting and stimulating photographs in the exhibition. Yogananthan’s photos are simultaneously modest, homely, undramatic but wonderfully composed and atmospheric. Which is why I’ve included two.

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015 from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

If you like India, and you like photography, what are you waiting for? It’s a terrific show and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE.

The exhibition video


Related links

More about the photographers

Reviews of photography exhibitions

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi (1947)

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. (p.96)

Levi spent a year in Auschwitz concentration camp – from February 1944 to the camp’s liberation by the advancing Russians in January 1945. He was one of the very few Jews to survive the experience and write about it. This is his account.

Lead-up

Having been born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, he came to adulthood and was pursuing studies to become an industrial chemist at just the time that Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, allowed himself to be dragged into Hitler’s European war, and then came under growing pressure from the Nazis to enact German-style anti-Semitic legislation.

To escape the increasing anti-Jewish persecution, Levi took to the mountains outside Turin in late 1943, to form a ragtag group of ‘partisans’. They were captured on 13 December 1943 and interned in an Italian camp. Then, on 21 February 1944, came the order to load all the Jews in the camp onto trains – into the notorious cattle trucks, 650 people packed into 12 trucks, with no heating, seats or toilets. They began an agonisingly slow journey North and East – through Austria and Czechoslovakia, then across the border into southern Poland, arriving at the siding of the vast industrial-concentration camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau one dark night.

If This Is A Man is the relatively short (160 pages in the Abacus paperback) but devastating and upsetting account of his experiences there. In his introduction Levi explains that the 17 chapters were written in order of intensity of the memories, and only later re-arranged into a sort of chronological order. This explains what I think is the key feature of the book – it is not an account of what he saw there, it is a meditation on what it meant, on what he learned.

Thus there is detail about the first few hours – how almost all the women, children and elderly are taken off in one group at the siding, to be gassed and incinerated (though none of them realised it at the time); how the remaining 96 men were processed into the work camp of Monovitz-Buna, which involved standing around naked waiting to be deloused, being shaved, having a number tattooed on your wrist – Levi is number 174517.

My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die. (p.33)

But then it jumps quite quickly to a few months later, into the heart of the condition – when Levi has become a shambling slave like all the others, shattered by the starvation rations, by the long hours of gruelling physical labour, by lack of sleep, by permanent illness, dysentery, running sores, by the freezing grip of the never-ending Polish winter.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this. (p.32)

And it’s not just the physical privations: it’s the psychological destruction wrought by the camp. Using the Teutonic efficiency which he ironically refers to throughout (for every person missing the roll-call, ten would be shot), the Germans systematically destroy each inmates’ self-respect and then their bare humanity: shaving the head and tattooing a number is just the start of a process which continues with the constant beatings and kickings by the ‘Kapos’ (Jews appointed as work overseers), the implementation of a host of petty regulations (‘the rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless’, p.40), the way all authority sees through them, ignores them, makes it clear in a host of ways that they are non-people, non-humans, dead men walking.

For beneath all the daily humiliation and struggle to survive, is fear of the ‘selections’ when the inmates are given a card with a number and go naked from one dormitory to another, handing the card to a bored SS man holding a clip file. In those two or three seconds he makes snap decisions about who looks well enough to carry on working, and who is obviously kaput and will be sent, the next day, to the gas chamber. Later, those who know they will die distribute their meagre possessions (a spoon, a bowl) and lie on their bunks staring glassy eyed into nothingness.

We prisoners

Because he is concerned to plunge the reader into the heart of the experience, Levi routinely uses the second person plural, ‘we this’, ‘we that’, to convey the sense of the communal experience, to make himself a representative figure, an everyman or more accurately, everyslave figure – embodying in the degradation and immiseration of his person the suffering of millions and millions of his fellow Jews as well as the hundreds of thousands of other non-Jewish victims of the camps.

We have learnt.. to reply ‘Jawohl‘, never to ask questions, always pretend to understand. We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose crumbs… We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap round our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold… (p.39)

So it isn’t a straightforward factual account. It is an existential account. Levi returns again and again to the experience, the feeling of being reduced to a number, a shambling skeleton, a wreck of a human being.

A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body… On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my emaciated body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening. (p.43)

He drums into us the monotonous rhythm of camp life, waking before dawn on freezing mornings, roused and dressed and checked and then marched off to work, work, work when they could barely stand.

Teachings

Levi always refers to the camp as the ‘Lager’, the German word. Here everyone is set against everyone else. People are reduced to animals who will squabble and fight about crumbs of food. On the other hand, down here at the bottom, you learn the basic rules of humanity and of survival. Everything can be stolen. Even when washing in the fetid unclean water, never let go of your shirt or jacket or beret, which you must clutch between your knees. Never put down any of your belongings, they will be stolen. Take advantage of any opening, any offer of extra food, a day without work, every five minutes not spent slaving is a window, an opportunity to recover energy.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Drowned and The Saved’ and this is a central division, a profound division among the inmates, which Levi observed, so important that he gave the name to a collection of essays he published 40 years later. Some people are survivors: they strive for a ‘place’, position, any kind of small privilege, often acting the part and in the end being appointed overseer of this bit of work, or elder in a dormitory or even Kapo – all with the promise of more food and less work. Others – the drowned – from the start give in, collapse, fold up on themselves, lacking the inner resources, the steel, the determination to survive and prove the Germans wrong.

  • the privileged will always abuse the unprivileged: it is how they demonstrate to themselves that they are privileged
  • to those that have will be given more; to those that have nothing, everything will be taken away (p.94)
  • ‘One of the most important things I had learned at Auschwitz was that one must always avoid being a nobody. All roads are closed to a person who appears useless, all are open to a person who has a function, even the most fatuous.’ (p.235)

In his repeated technique of drawing general observations about human nature from various aspects of the camp, we see Levi the scientist, the PhD chemistry student, weighing and analysing, regarding the Lager as ‘a gigantic biological and social experiment’ (p.93) – justifying his claim in the Preface, that the book wasn’t written to add to the accusations against the Germans (many of whom were still being tried at the Nurenberg Trials when he wrote it), but ‘to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ (p.15).

Other people

In this condition of subjugation and deliberate dehumanisation, Levi marvels at the people around him. In what will become his trademark approach, Levi gives cameos of people he sees with a kind of wondering alienation. He wonders how so-and-so survives despite being so sickly, he admires the strong who have shouldered their way into enjoying some petty privilege, he is full of contempt for those who could help their fellows but don’t.

In this grim landscape there is rarely the opportunity for friendships or relationships. Instead he gives us moments of interaction between inmates which he turns into moralised vignettes, gestures which point towards larger human truths. The many individuals he names or describes are individuals but at the same time somehow, types, essences, possible variations of the human creature.

Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. (p.98)

Levi devotes chapter 11 to the Ulysses canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy (and his attempt to remember it properly and explain it to a fellow inmate, Jean, ‘the ‘Pikolo of our Kommando’, as a kind of test that he is still a civilised man). You can make an obvious comparison: Dante used figures from his own day, including many of his own friends and acquaintances, to point larger morals about sin and redemption; ditto Levi in the camp.

  • Steinlauf, ex-Austrian army, fought in the Great War, teaches Levi that you must go through the rituals – washing in fetid water, ‘cleaning’ the greasy muddy shoes – in order to maintain your ‘dignity and propriety’, so you don’t descend into slovenly brutes (p.47).
  • Null Achtzehn, a man reduced to the last three digits of his camp number (018), shambling wreck, an emptiness, stands tottering with no impetus of his own: he will go to the gas chamber with the same lack of interest.
  • Chajim, a Polish watchmaker who retains dignity by adapting his skills to the new situation (p.53).
  • Schmulek, a Polish Jewish albino, selected for death, he quietly gives Levi his spoon and knife (p.59).
  • Alberto, an optimistic 22-year-old Italian Jew who manages to befriend everyone, wangle favours from everyone, without actively hurting others, a ‘rare figure of the strong yet peace-loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted’ (p.63).
  • Engineer Kardos has developed a speciality in tending the inmates’ feet, lancing boils, cleaning wounds, tending corns, getting paid in fragments of bread (p.64).
  • Resnyk, a tall courteous Italian, with whom Levi must share his narrow bunk (p.71).
  • Schepschel, survivor of four years in the camp, doesn’t hesitate to betray his partner in a theft from the kitchen, Moischl, to a flogging, in the mistaken belief it will gain him credit in the eyes of the block supervisor (p.99).
  • Alfred L., director of a chemical factory who grasped from the start that you must act like one of the saved, dress and hold yourself and talk like a ‘prominent’ and whose long term plan paid off when he was appointed head of the Chemical Commando, a position of privilege he defended with complete ruthlessness.
  • Elias Lindzen, an immensely tough muscular dwarf, a ball of muscle, impossible to understand his deformed Yiddish, a phenomenal worker who gains a position of respite, and devotes himself to full time theft and survival. A monster. A ‘para-human’. Perfectly suited to life in the camp (p.103).
  • Henri, a civilised 22-year-old Frenchman, whose brother died in Buna camp and who has perfected a seductive manner with which he charms all sorts of favours out of all sorts of inmates and supervisors, all the time covering his soul in an impenetrable carapace. Charming and utterly cold (p.106).

There are quite a few more pen portraits, in the remaining 70 pages, which I won’t list here. But this list shows several things:

  1. Levi succeeds in his attempt to record all the people he can – as witnesses, as testimony, as a simple record of the lives of victims otherwise reduced to a nullity and then exterminated
  2. Levi’s ability, as a writer, a chronicler, to create such vivid pen portraits, to produce very powerful short cameos of those around him
  3. Levi’s ability to see beneath the individual to the general ‘laws’ of human nature, which fascinate Levi the scientist

An ending

To his amazement Levi is called to an interview to work in an actual chemistry laboratory. He will never forget the way the blonde Aryan chemist interviewing him, regards him. He gets the job and does his best to clean himself before coming to the lab each day, but can’t ignore the looks of repulsion on the faces of the pretty German secretaries.

But it isn’t the lab job which saves him; it’s getting ill. Throughout the autumn of 1944 rumours had spread that the Allies have landed, somewhere far away in France, and that the Russians are throwing the Germans back. By Christmas they can hear the low rumble of the guns at the front, off to the East. And it’s at this crucial point that Levi contracts scarlet fever, and is in the Ka-Be, the Krankenbau, the infirmary full of the sick and dying, when the Germans make the momentous decision to evacuate Auschwitz. Some 20,000 surviving inmates were lined up and marched off west. As history records, almost none of them survived the long, pointless march through the Polish snow and ice.

One morning the infirmary inhabitants wake up and all the Germans have gone. The last chapter returns us to time, to human time. It is in diary form, recording in detail the events of the ten days between the Germans’ departure and the arrival of the Russians – January 18 to 27 – because now days are no longer an indefinite repetition of grey monotonous slavery: they come alive with individual features; they progress; things change.

So in the last few pages the still sickly Levi forms an alliance with two Frenchmen, new to the camp and so still with residual energy, Charles and Arthur, and set about scavenging the camp for food and treasure. They find a stove, break up firewood, discover a huge store of frozen potatoes and turnips. They collaborate. They use initiative and imagination. They become human again, rising up from their slave nullity, and this – as well as the sense of the approaching Russian liberators – gives the final pages an extraordinary force and energy and excitement, which lifts the reader out of the despairing pit of the central core of the book.

But leaves you, nonetheless, with pitiful haunting memories.

He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? (p.72)

The warning from the camp

There is no one place you can point to and say this is Levi’s Great Message; instead there are lots of scattered insights and warnings. In the Preface he comes nearest to a general conclusion:

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. (p.15)

I take this to mean that the temptation to define one or some groups as ‘the other’, the ‘strangers’, is a part of all human nature. To insult or abuse or threaten the other, the stranger, minorities or outsiders, is always tempting and, on a psychological level, often pleasurable because it fulfils some basic human need. ‘Disconnected’ acts of abuse or threat are part of the rough and tumble of everyday life, no matter how much we disapprove.

The watershed, the crux, the line in the sand – is when threats and abuse become part of a ‘system’, and are officially sanctioned. Either by a powerful group, by a political party or – God forbid – by a government. At that point, the doorway to the Lager is opened.

Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal. (p.15)

It is this demonising of any social group, or gender, or religion, or minority, which invokes the shadow of the death camps, and which it’s in all our interests to avoid and prevent.


Credit

Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi was published by the small publisher, De Silva in 1947. In 1958 it was republished by the bigger publisher, Einaudi and became better known. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by the Orion Press in 1959. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

Maddon’s Rock by Hammond Innes (1947)

Had we known then what Fate had in store for us, no military order ever devised would have sent us across that gangway on to the deck of the Trikkala. (p.14)

This is a good novel, slow and realistic and building up a persuasive sense of people, place and plight.

The novel is narrated by Corporal Jim Vardy. He is a fair-minded, honest, practical man. He gets on well with his working class men (Sill and Bert) and we learn a lot about his troubled engagement to the daughter of a traditional Army family which looks down on him. He comes from Falmouth and grew up sailing and is a natural on the water, which is important to the plot.

The plot

The novel opens in March 1945 as he and his men await in a vast hanger in Murmansk docks for a boat to take them back to Britain. He’s been in Russia showing the Red Army how to use the sights of guns we’d sent them.

Part one of the novel describes slowly, with great detail and vividness, how he and his two soldiers board the SS Trikkala, a Greek ship co-opted by the Ministry of War. They are bullied by a drunken Warrant Officer, Rankin; surprised when a pretty young lady, Jennifer Sorrell, joins the ship just before it sails; and slowly get used to the freezing weather, the snow and the high seas. But above all, over the next few days, he and his men discover and overhear things which make them uneasy, viz:

  • they are ordered to guard big crates which they’re told are full of aero engine spare parts – they discover they’re not; it’s a huge consignment of silver bullion
  • they overhear the captain saying he’ll shift watches to fix it
  • they overhear the captain and mate saying they’ll get Vardy’s bullying superior onto their side
  • they discover the planks in the lifeboats are loose, and that these very boats were being ‘maintained’ by the sinister mate the night before
  • they discover from the drunk chief engineer that even his own crew spread rumours that sinister captain Halsey was involved in piracy in the Far East
  • in the early hours of March 5 Vardy knows, from his seaman skills, that the Trikkala has changed course to sail away from the convoy it’s part of

Explosion

So that when there is an explosion as if the ship has hit a mine, and the captain gives the order Abandon ship, and orders Vardy, his men and the girl into the very lifeboat whose planks they know are loose – Vardy refuses. He refuses and is followed by the girl and one of his men, Bert, to the afterdeck and begins untying one of the rafts located there; he prefers the open raft to the dodgy lifeboat. When the captain, first mate and their Warrant Officer approach them to force them into the lifeboat, Vardy draws his rifle and threatens to fire. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows something is wrong. As he is covering the baddies he is hit from behind and passes out.

He wakes on the raft along with Bert and Jenny. After he was hit they were all loaded aboard it by the crew. They watch the Trikkala‘s lights in the distance until they suddenly disappear and our guys assume she’s sunk. Some hours later they are picked up by a corvette in the convoy though they are not taken straight back to England. The corvette makes a detour to Iceland then to mid-Atlantic accompanying an American convoy, before arriving back at Falmouth, coincidentally Varden’s home town.

Here, he and Bert are astonished to be arrested and told they are charged with mutiny on the high seas, an offence which carries a possible death sentence.

Court martial and Dartmoor

Like everything else in the novel, Vardy and Bert’s court martial is described in full and convincing detail. It feels like it really happened. It turns out the boat carrying the captain, first mate, Rankin and a few crew survived weeks on the open sea and was picked up near the Faroes. Vardin and Bert secure a very able defence lawyer, and the scenes of his cross-examination of the witnesses are vivid and telling. But in the end the facts speak for themselves; Vardin disobeyed a clear order and threatened to shoot his superior officers. Not even the surprise appearance of Jenny, the pretty girl whose life he saved by persuading her to go on the raft not in the boat, and her evidence, can alter the verdict.

To his shock he and Bert are sentenced to four and three years imprisonment, respectively. There is further shock as the prison van takes them a route he slowly rcognises and then is confirmed as the road to Dartmoor, Britain’s bleakest, harshest prison.

Vardin then describes in slow sober persuasive detail what it was like to spend a year in Dartmoor prison: the other cons, the borstal boys, the screws, the soul-destroying work and the constant effort not to go mad. Only his letters to and from Jenny preserve his sanity.

Part two – revenge

Then, after a hard year in prison, he sees a newspaper article describing how the survivors of the Trikkala have formed a company and raised funds to try and salvage her. Once again Vardy’s suspicions are aroused and he becomes consumed by a desire to find out just what it was all about and, if possible, to have his revenge on the men who put him in gaol.

He and Bert take advantage of the old lags’ prison knowledge in order to break out of Dartmoor, to make an exciting and daring escape across moor and river in the best John Buchan tradition. They head north to where the salvage operation is assembling, corner and beat the truth out of a drunken Rankin – the Trikkala never sank but was beached on a remote island called Maddon’s Rock in a conspiracy by the captain and key crew members. Then they journey on to Scotland to meet pretty Jenny who agrees to loan them her boat – the 25-ton ketch Eilean Mor – and accompany them on their mission, to the storm-beaten hell which is Maddon’s Rock and on to the exciting climax to the novel.

And whilst we stood on that frozen deck, the Rock was waiting for us out there in the Barents Sea. Maddon’s Rock. I shall never forget that place. Milton’s blind eyes had never seen the desolation of those seas when he described his Hell. Torrent fire, dire hail, perpetual storms and parching air, yes – but out there, lit through the eternal night by the cold, groping fingers of the Northern Lights, is my idea of Hell; a restless tumult of waves tumbling in thunderous cascades across the reefs, climbing the cliffs of the Rock and pouring green along its flanks. And the Rock itself – living rock, as much a part of our earth as a green hill or a moss-grown bank, but here an island, thrust up out of the wrack of ocean – grey, bleak, sheened with ice and polished by the waters so that it is as smooth as the skull of a dead man. (p.15)

Prolepsis and anticipation

Most thrillers and adventure stories in the first person use authorial prediction – ‘If only I had known then what I know now…’ – to build up tension and anticipation. In this novel it strikes me that Innes uses it particularly well, repeatedly drilling home the mood of dread and fate – but in a completely different way from the melodramatic Gothic tone of The Killer Mine. There he was channeling Edgar Allen Poe to build up a rather hammy atmosphere of doom and horror.

Here the prolepsis/anticipation do something different. They genuinely sound like the bitter comments of a man whose life has been ruined. They are less about creating melodramatic suspense and more about adding depth to the very believable character of Vardin and giving verisimilitude to his struggle to set down his story. It sounds like the efforts of a man who is not used to writing, attempting to tell his story in the logical order, with comments on how his views and personality changed, bitter reflections on how his life might have been different, if only…

I am not going to dwell on the time I spent in Dartmoor. It is only an interlude in the story and has no real bearing on what happened later, save that it toughened me mentally and physically. I doubt whether, without that period in Dartmoor, I should ever have had the guts or desperation to do what I eventually did. (p.107)

The class system

The novel contains a sort of sketch of the notorious British class system. Not among the main characters: the crew of the Trikkala  and Vardy are functions of the story; they stand outside a description of Britain or its class structure; they are pawns in the plot, men enacting the drama. It’s in the secondary characters that Innes gives, as it were, an incidental view of the system, namely:

Working class Vardy likes one of his soldiers, cheeky Cockney Bert Cook, and comes to value his cheerfulness, on the life-raft and then in prison. He quickly takes to Bert’s poor, downtrodden but warm and kindly wife when she visits him in prison.

Mrs Bert was a solidly built, angular woman with a rollicking sense of humour that shook the walls of that wood-lined room. She might have been a barmaid or kept a winkle stall in her youth. But now there was only the faintest trace of the buxom Cockney beauty she had once been. She was worn with work and cares. But beneath the wrinkled skin and faded clothes was a warmth that did me good. It was the warmth of a friendly nature that seemed to expect the worst from a hard world, accepted it and triumphed over it so that you felt in her that flood of good-neighbourliness that is the spring of happiness. (p.101)

Middle class The warmth of Bert’s working class milieu contrasts sharply with Vardin’s troubled relationship with his fiancée, the haughty Betty. She comes from an ‘old Army family’ who are all disappointed that Vardin is only a corporal, who push him to apply for a commission and then brusquely abandon him when he is court-martialled. They represent the pushy and rather contemptible bourgeoisie.

Upper class Then there is the surprisingly conservative portrait of Jenny and her father, clearly from an old Scottish family, owning a fine house overlooking the sea, staffed by servants, neither of them appearing to do any work. It is this privileged, work-free background which allows Jenny to become such an expert sailor and to drop everything to sail with Vardin to Maddon’s Rock. Her father, in particular, is portrayed very favourably as a natural aristocrat, a true gentleman, enjoying his wonderful meals from the produce of his own farm, fine local whisky, not worried that Vardin is on the run from the police, trusting he is right, calmly entrusting his only daughter to his care with a firm handshake. ‘A gentle-voiced man with bright twinkling blue eyes and white hair.’ (p.101) Reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s embodiment of the patrician virtues in Guy Crouchback’s kindly father in his Sword of Honour trilogy.

Dramatis personae

  • Corporal Jim Vardy: narrator
  • Warrant Officer Rankin: drunk bully Warrant Officer in charge of Varin and his men, who is persuaded to join the conspiracy to ‘sink’ the Trikkala. After Vardy and Bert escape from Dartmoor they make their way to Newcastle, board the salvage tug and beat the truth out of him.
  • Captain Halsey: small mad captain of the Trikkala given to quoting Shakespeare, rumoured to have been involved with sinkings in the Far East, mastermind of the scheme to beach the Trikkala then return later and claim to have ‘salvaged’ her. Vardy discovers a scrapbook in his cabin revealing he was a Shakespearian actor wanted for burning down his own theatre for the insurance who then fled the country and reinvented himself abroad. A wrong ‘un, through and through.
  • Jennifer Sorrel: escapee from a German prison to Russia, she finds herself aboard the Trikkala returning to England, is persuaded to join Vardin on the raft when the Trikkala ‘sinks’, supports Jim at his court martial, writes to him in Dartmoor prison, lends him her boat to sail to Maddon’s Rock on the condition she can come, too.
  • Jenny’s father: a Scottish laird and gentleman.
  • Sills: one of the privates under Vardin’s command. Drowns in the sabotaged lifeboat.
  • Bert Cook: private under Vardin, he follows him onto the raft, is rescued and returned to England and court martialled and sent to Dartmoor with him. When he finds out Vardin is planning to escape he insists on coming too.
  • Mac: Jenny’s loyal engineer, who taught her everything about ships, there isn’t an engine in the world he can’t strip down, fix and rebuild etc. Mac accompanies them on the fantastic voyage to Maddon’s Rock and, when the Eilean Mor is smashed to pieces by the stormy surf, it is Mac who gets the rusty old Trikkala‘s engines working. One in a long line of Scots engineers from Kipling’s McAndrew to Star Trek’s Scotty. And they are always comedy complaining:

‘But dinna blame me if the whole engine-room falls oot through the bottom of her. She’s no’ jist oot of the yards, ye ken. Ye canna afford to take liberties wi’ a ship in this condition.’ (p.216)

Related links

White Circle pocket edition of Maddon's Rock

White Circle pocket edition of Maddon’s Rock

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes (1947)

I realised then that I was buried. I was frightened. I fought upwards with my hands, gripped in a frenzy of terror. (p.93)

Neil Blair had a nice little family business before the War, running a local newspaper in Wiltshire. After three years in the Army he returned and set up a printing business in Exeter but that folded. One day, up in London, he bumps into a tough-minded man he knew in the Army, one Engles, who served with him for a while before moving into Army Intelligence, now back in Civvy Street and making films. Engles asks Blair if he wants to make money spending three months in Cortina in the Dolomites as a script editor on a new film production, with maybe some other duties thrown in. The main other duty is to report if he sees a beautiful Italian woman whose photo Engels gives him. Little does he suspect that this innocent invitation will draw him into a web of intrigue and murder etc etc…

Blair travels to Cortina, to the Tre Coci Pass and, here at the main hotel, meets some of the novel’s characters. He then takes the sledge lift with Joe up to the rifugia or guest house atop the Col da Varda where he encounters the other characters (listed below). Slowly he realises that something is afoot but it takes him 120 or so pages to begin to work out what. It all goes back to a German Captain Stelben who owned the rifugia after the War before being betrayed to the British Army and committing suicide in prison. Newspaper reports of the events mention a certain Contessa who is his partner. Blair recognises her as the woman in the photo Engels gave him; then recognises her in real life at the hotel at the foot of the mountain.

Now that Stelben is dead, this disparate group assembles from across Europe for the official auction of the old rifugia – to everyone’s surprise the bidding for this old hut goes exceptionally high. Why? What is its value? What is hidden there?

Murder attempt

All these novels require a chase or pursuit or physically challenging incident to get the reader’s blood racing. Here, Mayne invites Blair for a supposedly innocent morning’s skiing. For a start, skiing in those days seems to have been more strenuous than in our time; it involves taking off the skis at various points to climb or walk across glaciers or up mountain sides to better positions. But it also turns out that Mayne has chosen a particularly treacherous ski run in order to get Blair skiing far faster than is safe and, suddenly leads him into a sheer cliff of snow and ice. Mayne avoids this at the last second but which Blair crashes right into.

The description of the early, innocent, stages of the skiiing expedition is interesting; the account of the dangerous ski itself is riveting; and the account of Blair’s fortuitous survival and of how he slowly, painfully digs himself out of the snow and finds his way back along the route in a howling snow-storm before collapsing just as the rescue party from the rifugia sights him, is involving and exhausting.

When he recovers Blair confronts Mayne with the accusation he tried to murder him, which Mayne blithely ignores, saying the whole thing was an unfortunate accident. Previously Blair’s room has been searched. And the night before he overheard two men out in the snow apparently discussing sabotaging the sledge-lift in order to kill someone, though he didn’t see who they were.

Blair now wonders if one of the people he overheard was Mayne who caught Blair eavesdropping and think that he – Blair – overheard more than he actually did. Was it this which inspired him to try and get rid of him on the treacherous ski journey? And so the suspicious circumstances and narrator’s uncertainty grow…

Nazi gold

But it is only with the arrival of Engels himself, travelling up the sledge lift with the Contessa, that the scene is set for the Final Act in what turns out to have been a long and complicated criminal conspiracy.

It’s about Nazi gold. At the end of the War Captain Stelben was in the Gestapo and put in charge of a transfer of gold from an Italian bank north to Munich. He diverted from his orders and got his men to take the gold in crates up the sledge lift to the Col da Varda and there bury it in the foundations of the anti-aircraft guns which he knew were being built. Then he massacred the men with a machine gun. He then escaped in the confusion at the end of the War, holed up in Greece, before returning to Italy and buying the rifugia. However, he was betrayed and handed over to the British Army for interrogation during which he committed suicide.

He left a number of people with partial knowledge of the theft and hiding: his girlfriend, the ‘Contessa’ – in fact one of a troupe of dancing girls and courtesans; Valdini who at one stage was the Contessa’s lover; Mayne, the Irish-American who the Contessa also was indiscreet with; Keramikos who heard the story from the sole survivor of the massacre, a German corporal hiding in Greece.

A closed circle mystery

The closed circle mystery is a specific genre of detective fiction, in which a limited number of suspects all have the means and motivation to have committed the murder which starts the action. There is no specific murder here; or, rather, there are quite a few murders but all carried out during the War and it is not a murder which needs a solution, but the precise whereabouts of the Treasure.

In this respect, maybe it is more like a buried treasure-pirate story – except that there are so many Nazi gold plots that ‘hidden Nazi treasure’ is probably as large a genre as ‘country house mystery’, eg Desmond Bagley’s debut novel, The Golden Keel also, as it happens, set in Italy.

Skiing

The novel explores in some detail the immediately post-War world of skiing, with its cable cars, sledge lifts, popular resorts and bars, refuges high up in the mountains as well as skiing terms and techniques. Is this the earliest adventure novel to take skiing as its central subject? It’s certainly the earliest one I’ve read which features not one but two thrilling ski rides, chases and murders.

Dramatis personae

  • Neil Blair: innocent first-person narrator.
  • Derek Engles: Neil’s Battery Commander in 1942 before he transferred to Intelligence. A dashing, exacting officer, it was in this capacity that Engles interviewed Captain Stelben and got some of the story of the hidden gold but not all. When he read a newspaper story about Stelben’s suicide it revived his interest and he sends Blair to be his eyes and ears until something definite crops up. When the Contessa and others arrive in Cortina it prompts him to come himself. In many ways Engles is the hero of the story, and Blair is the Nick Carraway to Engles’ dashing Gatsby figure, the rather naive bystander, witness, only survivor of the débâcle on the mountain top and its reluctant chronicler.
  • Joe Wesson: cameraman: a ‘fat sluggish ape’, completely innocent of the various goings-on around him.
  • Edoardo Mancini: biggest hotelier in Cortina, former sportsman run to seed.
  • Aldo: apelike waiter in the rifugio, the ski house atop Col da Varde in the Dolomite mountains.
  • Anna: flirtatious barmaid in the rifugio.
  • Kapitan Heinrich Stelben: Nazi officer who stole bank gold he was entrusted with and buried it atop the Col da Varda; he was captured soon after the War and interrogated by Engles, but escaped, adopting a new identity and buying the Col da Varda, before being captured a second time and committing suicide. Now the property is to be auctioned…
  • Contessa Forelli: previously known as Carla Rometta, a dancer and courtesan who attached herself to Stelben during his post-War life but has thrown in her lot with Valdini, whom she devastatingly revenges.
  • Stefan Valdini: ‘a dirty little Sicilian gangster’, one-time lover of the Contessa. Keramikos murders him, prompting her fiery revenge.
  • Keramikos: a visiting Greek, revealed to have been a Nazi agent; turns out Engles is more interested in him and the crimes he committed against British forces in Greece, than in the gold.
  • Gilbert Mayne: Irish but well-travelled, particularly in the States; revealed to be a British deserter become gangster who stole the deceased captain Mayne’s identity: he holds everyone up in the rifugia shoots Valdini and beats up the Contessa before meeting a horrible death.

Technical terms

You English…

Innes is at pains to distinguish between the fiery passionate Italians and the cold, stiff English.

‘I wonder whether you will understand. You English are so cold.’ (p.63)

‘You are so English, my dear – so delightfully English…’ Her expression as she said this was the equivalent of sticking out her tongue at me and my English ideas. (p.66)

This is similar to Eric Ambler who, in almost every one of his pre-War novels, has one character or another laugh at the English, at their political naïveté, their cold manner, their gaucheness in affairs of the heart. Since these books were written to be popular, one can only assume this was a widespread feeling the English held about themselves.

The movie – Snowbound

The book was almost immediately made into a film, Snowbound, released in 1948, directed by David MacDonald and starring Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Mila Parély, and Herbert Lom. It is, apparently, not so good, which explains why it isn’t even available on DVD nor on YouTube.

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Killer Mine by Hammond Innes (1947)

If I had been told as I strode over the mist-shrouded road to Penzance, that I was walking straight into a terrible mine disaster – not only that, but into a pitiful story of madness and greed that involved my own family history – then I just should not have believed it. (p.22)

A little biography

Innes was born in 1913. His first novel was published in 1937, his last in 1996, so his career spanned two-thirds of the twentieth century. Whereas his contemporary Eric Ambler (b.1909) focused on what could loosely be called ‘spy’ novels, which always have a political aspect and often involve shady East European governments, Innes’ novels are more straightforward ‘adventure’ stories. In Innes an innocent and unsuspecting everyman character is thrown into a dangerous and threatening situation. Like Ambler, his writing career was interrupted by the War. He started out manning an anti-aircraft gun before moving on to edit Army newspapers in various theatres of war abroad.

The Killer Mine

This is Innes’ second peacetime novel. It has a strong Gothic feeling being a) set among the ruins of an abandoned Cornish tin mine and b) with a sub-plot about family madness, suicide and murder. Jane Eyre in a tin mine.

Other Innes protagonists have been nicely middle class, for example Kilmartin the barrister in The Trojan Horse. The protagonist of this one, Jim Pryce, is a great bear of a man who deserted in the face of the enemy in the Italian campaign at Monte Cassino. He runs off and finds work with Italians in lignite mines. Now, after two years slaving away, he has saved enough money to buy a black market passage back to England.

But things are rough, criminal, lowdown and nasty from the start: the crooked captain Mulligan swindles Pryce out of his last remaining money for setting him ashore, a disagreement which leads to a fight and Pryce being knocked unconscious, then waking in the surf after being flung onto an empty Cornish beach.

Things continue badly as he makes his way to the contact who wrote to him in Italy promising to fix him up with a job and accomodation. He arrives at the moment that this man, David Jones, is being treated for a gunshot wound received in a fight with coastguards. These Revenue men had boarded the boat he was using to bring contraband alcohol to England but the boat had been booby-trapped. When the Revenue opened the hold it blew up, killing coastguard and crew, leaving Jones the only survivor and, incidentally, leading to a criminal investigation and the threat of the police closing in on the gang.

The wounded Jones takes Pryce to an old abandoned mine workings, Wheal Garth, and there, in the dark and isolated house, in the midst of a howling storm, Pryce meets the father and son duo – the Manacks – who own and operate the mine and who are at loggerheads about its future. The father is convinced he has found a vast lode of tin which will make their fortunes and revive the Cornish mining industry. The son, Captain Manack, wants to blow a hole at the end of a mine shaft which leads out under the sea in order to create a more secure underwater route via which his regular smuggling ships can offload their cargo.

It is Captain Manack who has hired Pryce to help perform this operation and the timeframe of the novel is the two or three days during which Pryce supervises the other miners in blasting through the rock face above the end of the shaft, up towards the sea bed. The idea is that this will then flood the shaft, creating a hole through which the contraband cargo will be lowered onto a kind of underwater rail system and then hauled inland and above the water level, into the heart of the mine where it can be easily reclaimed and stored.

Pryce doesn’t want to do it. He wants to get away from the wretched house and this crazy job, but Manack locks up his money and threatens to give Pryce up to the police. As a deserter he would be liable to a long prison sentence. When pushed, Manack pulls a gun on him. So Pryce is trapped until he can complete the job.

Gothic madness

BUT – as if this situation wasn’t dodgy enough, Pryce discovers a monumental family coincidence which fuels the Gothic and eerie tone of the book.

His father had emigrated to Canada, taking him with him as a four year-old boy, but had always spoken lovingly of his Cornish roots and it is these family memories which have prompted Pryce to return. Now he slowly unravels the family secret: that his mother abandoned his father and himself to run off with the older Manack. But Manack refused to leave his current wife, forcing Jim’s mother to become a mistress; and even when Manack’s wife did die, Manack married someone else, keeping Jim’s mother on in the humiliating role of housekeeper.

Furthermore, Pryce discovers from Kitty, the reluctant maid of the house, in her final years his mother was kept imprisoned in the small attic room of the creepy old house with its barred windows and locked door. Everyone was convinced she had gone mad. Mad because she is found wandering the cliffs after someone had pushed the legitimate lady of the house, Manack’s second wife, down an abandoned mine shaft. Everyone, including Pryce’s distraught mother, too dazed to remember the event, assumes she did it out of jealousy, that she is a murderer.

Only once, when the door was left unlocked, does Jim’s mother scribble a quick note to her wronged husband and escape out of the house and make to the headland where she throws herself off the cliffs to her death. This haunting note is given to Pryce by the servant Kitty, and upsets him for days.

Gothic The text is full of premonitions of doom, of hints and allusions to this dark and Gothic family history. Pryce is not only menaced by men with guns in the present, but by these memories of madness and suicide from the past. As narrator he repeatedly drops heavy hints about destiny, doom, the thread of fate, the fatal legacy of the killer mine and so on.

But like the ruined mine shafts which honeycomb the cliffs, Pryce’s family story goes on to reveal fresh convolutions and complicatoins. Towards the end of the novel he realises that

  • his mother wasn’t a murderer: that old man Manack murdered his own wife to inherit her shares in the mine, and that he blamed Pryce’s distraught mother who was so upset that she acquiesced in her own incarceration
  • that Manack cleverly provided the opportunity for her suicide because she, too, owned some shares in the mine

In other words, that old man Manack has killed two women in his megalomaniac quest to gain complete control of the mine. It is he who is stark staring mad. And it is he who escapes from the house to precipitate the final, catastrophic dénouement of the novel.

Underground chases

Like Bond movies, all these thrillers have to include exciting chases: in The Trojan Horse it is Kilmartin’s flight through the sewers of London; in Wreckers Must Breathe it is the escape in the U-boat which is depth-charged by an RN ship; in The Lonely Skier it is the long dangerous ski chase which ends with the hero almost being killed.

Here in The Killer Mine there is the long sequence where Pryce follows old man Manack deeper and deeper into the honeycomb of disused mine shafts, imagining he is following him towards some secret. Only slowly does it dawn on him that he has been deliberately lured and then trapped underground to face a hideous death by starvation and thirst. Pages dwell on the horror of his fate until – not too surprisingly – he is, fortunately, rescued. By Kitty with whom, by this stage, he is falling love…

Disused mines

In Wreckers Must Breathe the German U-boat station is built out of a disused Cornish mine and the novel features vivid descriptions of descents into its ancient tunnels; same setting as The Killer Mine.

Left-wing

Like Ambler, Innes was politically left-wing and this view is dramatised, not always convincingly, in the mouths of some characters:

His eyes blazed at me across the fire. ‘What are laws? They’re not made by the men who starve. They’re made to protect the moneyed class. they’re my enemies, aren’t they? Well, aren’t they?’ (1973 Fontana paperback edition, page 40)

Dramatis personae

  • Jim Pryce: British Army deserter and miner, brought to England by crooks who promise him his freedom once he’s carried out some mining work in their disused mine-cum-smuggling operation.
  • Captain Mulligan: two-timing captain of the ship which smuggles Pryce from Italy back to England
  • David Jones: Welshman and crook who first writes to Pryce in Italy, offering him passage to and work in England. Responsible for blowing up a coastguard ship and killing its crew of customs officers which brings the police down on their trail, a  thread which adds to the sense of danger and urgency among the cast – though it is not the police who precipitate the final disaster.
  • Captain Manack: son of old man Manack, he runs the booze smuggling operation, head of the old pub-cum-house named Cripples’ Ease where the action is set, and it is his plan to blast open to the sea one of the underground shafts, thus creating a clever underwater passage for smuggled goods, preferable to the current difficult and too-obvious method of landing them by boat on exposed beaches.
  • Manack Senior: obsessed for decades with gaining total control of Wheal Garth mine, he correctly discovers there is plenty of tin yet to mine in her and has a megalomaniac fantasy of re-opening the mine and reviving the entire Cornish mining industry of his youth. In this he is contradicted by his son who wants to flood the very gallery where the tin is in order to create an underwater smuggling route. Pryce witnesses several fierce arguments between them but has no idea how mad the old man is until it is too late. ‘Stark madness stared out of those pale eyes. (p.167)
  • Ruth Nearne: Pryce’s mother who left her husband for love of Manack Senior who proceeded to humiliate her, persuaded her she was mad and engineered her eventual suicide.
  • Bob Pryce: the narrator’s father. After his wife left him he took his young son abroad and raised him in various mining comunities around the world.
  • Kitty: housemaid in Cripples’ Ease, herself part of the Gothic plot. After Manack’s first wife dies, he remarries but not Pryce’s mother, instead a glamorous society woman. This woman is Kitty’s mother but since she is often absent living the high life, Kitty is actually raised by and loves Pryce’s mother. It is Kitty’s glamorous mother who everyone believes was murdered by Pryce’s mother, who everyone, as a result, thinks is was mad. As the real story emerges, Kitty and Pryce form an alliance, fall in love and, at the dramatic climax of the book, help to save each others’ lives and escape from the underground catastrophe. Kitty is described in physical detail unusual for books of this time: ‘Her eyes sparkled and I knew she wasn’t angry. She was a big girl, but well proportioned with firm breasts that thrust at the cotton of her blouse, so that I could see the outline of her nipples.’ (p.65) In the last pages they set off together for a new life abroad 🙂
  • Friar: one of the deserters Captain Manack has had clearing out the Mermaid Gallery preparatory to the final blasting.
  • Slim Matthews: the other deserter Captain Manack has had preparing the Mermaid Gallery.
  • Cripples’ Ease: the old pub-cum-headquarters of the smuggling gang: a place of ill omen, dark shadows, with a small light from the madwoman’s attic at which haunting faces regularly appear.
  • Wheal Garth: the tin mine where the novel is set, which old Manack has murdered to gain complete control of, which he lures Pryce into the deepest bowels of intending him to die there, and where the final catastophe takes place. It is The Killer Mine both because it inspires mad old Manack to murder, but because it ends up killing almost everyone connected with it.
  • Come Lucky: neighbouring mine, open to the sea and above Wheal Garth: old man Manack blasts this mine in order to flood Wheal Garth and kill everyone in it.

Mining terminology

  • adit: horizontal entrance to an underground mine
  • cross-cut: a tunnel driven from one seam to another through or across the intervening measures
  • gallery: a horizontal passage in an underground mine
  • raise:  a minor connection from a lower level to a higher level in a mine
  • stoping: extracting ore from underground
  • stull: a round timber used to support the back or sides of a mine
  • winze:  a minor connection between different levels in an underground mine

It didn’t seem there could be any world, but this nightmare maze of tunnels creeping tortuously through dripping, slime-covered rock. (p.145)

The fear I had felt down there in those twisting galleries, the sense of being lost, the darkness – it was all like some ghastly nightmare. I could not believe that it had really happened. It was as though I had just woken up. It just didn’t seem real. (p.162)

Related links

Cover of The Killer Mine

Cover of The Killer Mine

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes (1947)

My sense of loneliness made the throng of life in the drab back-streets more vivid. The film of dirt on the hairy legs of the girl who shuffled ahead of me in wooden soled sandals, the urgent shrill cries of the ageless women behind the street stands, the beggars, the boys who wandered barefooted through the streets pimping for their sisters who were still in their teens, the tawdry make-up of a woman standing hopefully beneath the tinsel-decorated lamp-lit shrine of the Madonna at the street corner, the poverty and the dirt, and the sour smell of streets that had no proper sanitation… (p.127)

This is a very short thriller (158 pages in the Fontana paperback) in two starkly contrasting parts: first, the mood and feel of recently demobbed English sailors at a loose end and kicking around the Cornish coast; then a travelogue across recently liberated Italy in all its poverty and corruption. It packs a lot of description, history and feeling into a small space.

The plot

A man adrift

David Cunningham captained Royal Navy landing craft during the war. In the first few pages he is holed up in the Cornish boarding house where he and his true love holidayed before the war. While he was away serving, she married a RAF pilot who was subsequently killed and then she was killed in a German air raid. Her mother sent on a box of jewellery and trinkets. Just to complicate matters, he fell for another woman on a short home leave but now the war is over, and he’s reunited with her and her mother and family, he realises he’s not ready for marriage, he doesn’t know what he’s ready for, he’s confused and disorientated, so he’s run away to this remote Cornish house.

He stares moodily into the fire. The landlady says, ‘Why don’t you go find out about the wreck along the coast?’

Turns out a big landing craft got washed ashore onto rocks in a narrow cove the year before. Another disgruntled vet, Stuart McCrae, bought it off the Admiralty and is living in it. (In a typical Innes coincidence, their paths actually crossed during the war, when Cunningham piloted his landing craft carrying tanks onto the beach at Anzio where, amid the chaos and corpses, the very brave McCrae stood amid the shells and bullets and guided him in.)

Floating the boat

Over a scotch and war reminiscences, David says he thinks he can float the landing craft. And so the first 50 pages are a long and detailed description of how he wangles equipment off Navy mates, then rigs up scaffolding, gantries, hawsers and cables and dragoons passing tourists into helping build a rock and sand slope, with which they manage – despite various setbacks (some fierce storms destroy all their work and they have to start again) – to get the LC back into the water. Along the way they pick up another stray ex-Navy man, Dugan, an engineer who fixes the motors, and who knows another bloke, Boyd, from Plymouth who signs on as crew.

They name the ship Trevedra after the nearby village.

The Monique storyline

Turns out one of the local holiday-makers who they persuaded to help building the ramp and gantries, is a newspaperman. He publishes a piece about their epic labour in a national newspaper, along with photos which prompts a surprising amount of ‘fan mail’, which he passes on to our chaps. Among the 124 letters is a moving one from an Emily Dupont. She married a Frenchman in the 1920s and lived in Paris. In the war her husband and son were killed. At an early stage of the German invasion, she packed off her daughter to stay with Italian cousins for safety. She writes that, if the guys are travelling to Italy, as the newspaper reports, could they please please please look for her daughter, Monique. The letter encloses a photo of a pretty 15-year-old and the address of the people she was sent to stay with.

The business deal

Meanwhile McCrae proposes a simple business set-up. He and Cunningham go 50-50 in a new company. The two crew get a percentage of profits. Cunningham will be captain and have absolute authority on the ship. McCrae will negotiate cargo and business deals. They shake on it. While Cunningham finalises the ship’s refurbishment, McCrae goes off to London to do business. He comes back with the news that Italy – which they both know – is poverty stricken, and desperate in particular for all forms of transport. McCrae has fixed up with an old Army pal to buy some knackered Bedford lorries and spares. They’ll load these with fags and booze and sail to Italy, selling at a good price and use the money to buy a return cargo – probably all the rare wines and liqueurs Italy is famous for, and British soldiers came home with a taste for, but which are difficult to obtain here. A mate of his in London has agreed to distribute any fine booze they bring back and is already making enquiries about potential business customers.

Very thorough of Innes to put in these details. Very plausible account. And very typically ordinary, low level, not international corporations. Very much the man on the street, the demobbed soldier or sailor trying to start again from scratch, as in Killer Mine.

Sailing to Italy

Fairly uneventful, full of accurate and evocative descriptions of the sea which are Innes’ trademark.

Post-war Italy

The novel’s deep value may come less from its plot than from its searing and moving descriptions of post-war Italy, a corrupt and devastated shambles. Innes gives powerful descriptions of war-torn Naples, the damaged people and buildings. They dock, meet their business contact and dispose of the lorries and cigarettes on the spot for a big profit, then bank the proceeds and have a night on the town. Next day they are invited to a swanky party of a local bigwig up on the hill at Posillipo. In this swish villa, among the sleek men and scantily dressed women, Cunningham and McCrae are revolted at the contrast between the chattering rich and the absolute poverty in the city below, where people are literally starving to death.

When the bigwig, Del Ricci, takes them for a business chat and proposes buying the landing craft for double its market value, McCrae loses his temper: He knows Del Ricci is an ex-fascist, he knows he wants to use the landing craft to run guns to support his extortionate business practices, and he gives a big speech about how many British boys died horribly to liberate this country, not to give it back into the hands of fascists and crooks like him. When Del Ricci goes for his pocket pistol, McCrae lays him out with a big British punch. In the taxi back to the port Cunningham warns him, you shouldn’t have done that…

Looking for Monique

While McCrae pursues business contacts, Cunningham asks their local fixer to track down the address Emily Dupont gave him for Monique. Slowly the trail unfolds. Seems the address he was given was for a dodgy apartment block, a ristorante on the ground floor and brothel above it, with one respectable apartment where the Galliani family lived along with Monique. But the present owners say family and girl are long gone. They moved to a farm in the country.

Cunningham sets off to find her, taking Boyd, the cockney sailor, with him, telling McCrae they’ll be back in a day or two. He is so upset by the waste and horror of war, by the poverty and misery of Naples that – suddenly – finding her for her mother feels like a mission, a purpose, to try and put something right in this screwed-up world.

In fact it takes many days to follow the trail: first to a dusty farm, where Cunningham finds two old ladies. They confirm that the family from Naples came to stay here along with the girl. But at the end of the war, they describe a sickening incident when the Germans parked an 88mm flak gun by the farmhouse and used it for a while to defend a nearby bridge. When the Germans left, they set fire to the farmhouse. When the menfolk tried to intervene, the father was covered in petrol and set on fire, the others shot in the face. It is a revolting story, and typical of the violence and brutality Innes’ war-haunted protagonist sees all around him. Every road and hill and village brings back terrible memories of the war and its atrocities…

The women think Monique is in the village of Pericele. Boyd and Cunningham drive on through the killing grounds of the war, towns and cities flattened or pock-marked with artillery and bullet marks. Pericele turns out to be an impoverished dump and the parish priest a shifty creep who lies to them. After much prevarication it they discover that Monique has been sold into semi-serfdom to the village bully, Mancini. They track her down to a stream on his farm where she is dressed in rags and tells them how Mancini routinely whips her and beats her: he wants her to come begging to him for sex. She bursts into tears. Boyd and Cunningham are appalled at the humiliation and degradation of this still very young woman, but they see Mancini coming towards them in the distance, along with farmhands carrying shotguns. Boyd and Cunningham beat a hasty retreat but promise to return for her that evening.

That night Cunningham and Boyd, true to their promise, return to Mancini’s farm, parking the car some distance away and sneaking up quietly on the silent buildings. They discover Monique has been locked in the outdoor privy. But they make too much noise getting her out and Mancini comes roaring out of his house with his bullwhip. Cunningham tackles him and there is a bitter, unglamorous fight there in the farmyard muck. By wriggling free of his jacket Cunningham manages to get to his feet and run to the car Boyd has ready. They escape at top speed but, by the time they arrive back in Naples, Cunningham realises all his money, his wallet and his passport were in the damn jacket.

Stuck in Naples

Boyd and Cunningham make straight for the docks only to be stunned to learn that the Trevedra has sailed without them! What! Surely McCrae would never leave them. When they go to the bank where they happily deposited their profits a few days before, they discover McCrae emptied the account before leaving! What! I immediately suspected that McCrae has been killed by the mafioso he insulted and hit up at the hilltop villa.

Meanwhile, Cunningham and Boyd and Monique, united by their midnight exploits and their plight, pawn Cunningham’s watch and reluctantly move into the very sleazy apartment block-cum-bordello where Monique lived when she first came to stay in the city. It’s dirt cheap and has the advantage that the madam is tolerant of them. Also that it brings them into contact with the raddled old deserter who lives in one of the rooms and forges documents. The British Consul had agreed, reluctantly, to grant Cunningham a temporary passport to replace the one he left behind at Mancini’s farm, but refused point blank  to give one to Monique. Now, when Cunningham returns despondent from a day going to various offices (consulate, bank, harbour office), Boyd and Monique proudly show Cunningham her forged passport and travel documents. Job done.

The man who was paralysed

That night the forger asks them round for drinks. In a melodramatic scene worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle, he is given a long monologue in which reveals himself to be an embittered and crippled Scotsman, who got into various types of trouble in the Army, before deserting at Monte Cassino and making his way to Naples. He had always fancied himself an artist but here in a city racked by crime, discovered his true métier was forging papers, at which he has now become a master. The melodrama of his early escapades with the Army and then setting-up as a master forger, switches to lachrymose sentimentality as he starts talking about his dear old mum back in the wee Scots village of Ballachulish. He makes Cunningham swear to tell her – using his authority and swank as a former officer – that her son was a success, a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and bonny baby boy. But that, tragically, he was cut down in a street accident and has passed away. He’s forged the papers and even a will. He is, he points out bitterly, dying of syphilis anyway. He just wants his dear old mother to maintain her illusions.

— This extraordinary chapter is built from paper-thin clichés – how the idealistic young man slowly realises he is a rotten artist and becomes disillusioned; how he hates and loathes the Army and all its brutality; how he hates the pukka, public-school-educated officer class who had effortless confidence in everything they do; how the one and only ‘true’ work of art he ever made was the portrait of fair Monique, back when she was living with the Gallianis, and inspired by her beauty and innocence etc. Switching back to bitterness, he vents his scorn on the raddled Neapolitan prostitute he now lives with and her bastard son. The whole thing reeks of Victorian melodrama and is enjoyable as a remarkable reversion to the sensationalist fiction of the 1880s and 90s.

But it isn’t a completely random insertion: it also serves to move the plot along, because the paralysed man says that, if Cunningham swears on the Bible to take the message to his wee old mother, he’ll tell them what happened to their ship. Cunningham swears on the Bible. The paralysed man reveals that he forged papers for the Trevedra. He forged papers giving it a new name and naming its legal owner as Del Ricci. Aha. It all falls into place. Rather than buy the ship off the offensive McCrae, Del Ricci has just stolen it.

The paralysed man says it’s currently moored at Porto Giglio, on an island near Elba. He gives our chaps the name of a local ex-partisan and communist who very much wants to prevent the neo-fascist Del Ricci becoming the dominant power on this western coast. He says he’s arranged a rendezvous with this man, nicknamed the ‘Little Octopus’, at the trattoria in the Vicoletto Berio the next morning.

The Little Octopus

Our chaps meet the Octopus. When they tell him where the boat is moored, he makes arrangements and tells them to wait that night at a point on the road out of town. That night they have all their bags with them, and jump aboard the lorry carrying sacks of flour which arrives to collect them. They drive for hours north towards Rome and then west to the coast. Here they park at a harbour and load into a waiting island schooner, a filthy vessel run by an even filthier old captain, all spit and vino. The schooner sails out to Porto Giglio. Cunningham notices feet sticking out from under one of the collapsed sails. The Octopus notices and smiles cruelly. ‘If you live like a rat you die like a rat,’ he says. He shows Cunningham the cigarette tin and lighter with Del Ricci’s initials. They’ve murdered him. A little later his body is dropped overboard. Boyd comments that there is no law in this god-forsaken country and, on the evidence of this novel, there really doesn’t seem to be.

The schooner sails into Porto Giglio, where they execute their simple plan. They deliberately bump the schooner against the landing craft, which is moored in the centre of the harbour. The LC’s crew come out and start arguing and shouting, as Italians do, whereupon our lot of Italians hold them up at gunpoint. It could have been left at that, but again there is an excess of violence as, once they have tied and gagged the sailors, the Octopus proceeds to torture one of them with the tip of his lighted cigarette, stuffing a rag in his mouth to stifle the man’s screams. He is in the middle of doing this when Boyd on the bridge is overpowered by a baddy who’d been hiding below-decks. The Octopus shoots him without hesitation. Brains splatter onto Monique’s dress. She had wanted to see ‘fighting’. Now she realises she doesn’t like it.

The tortured baddy reveals that McCrae and the other crewman, Dugan, are in the lockers in the stern. Cunningham releases them, very much the worse for wear for having no food or water for two days. With that the Octopus says farewell. He has murdered his rival and deprived his organisation of a useful vessel. ‘How can we repay you?’ asks Cunningham. ‘Oh, you will return to Italy one day and maybe I will need help. That is all I ask.’ And he and his men climb back aboard the schooner and are gone.

Cunningham sets a course away from Italy out into the clean bracing air of the Mediterranean. McCrae and Dugan are recovering in the cabin. Boyd is running the engines. In an image which recurs in several later books, Cunningham guides Monique’s hands onto the spokes of the wheel and feels her warm body press back against his. They are in love. The future is going to be good.

Thoughts

As you can see the plot is pretty over-ripe, tipping into Victorian melodrama at points, but nonetheless it is gripping and well-told. It could have made a taut b&w 1950s movie starring one of the square-jawed English heroes from the time.

But the book is really worth reading for the tremendous flavour it gives you of a devastated Italy immediately after the war, the poverty and squalor and hopelessness, among which sit islands of opulence and plenty, all overlaid by the menacing presence of fascist bullies and mafia criminals. The drive through former battlefields as Cunningham relives the heat and sweat and blood and spilling guts of dying men in every village and field is very powerful. There is nothing, absolutely nothing glamorous or redeeming in the war that Innes describes. And the Italy he portrays couldn’t be further from the tourist fantasia of our times.

It’s powerful testimony to a now-distant and terrible era.


Credit

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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