The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’
(Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year confirms our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and into the Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes. There were communist putsches in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples, violent conflict had started even before 1914 and continued for another three, four or five after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, the populations of these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these countries were defeated because:

  1. the majority of the population didn’t want it
  2. the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’

No wonder T.S. Eliot, in 1923, referred to James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses as the only way to make sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then in 1911, across the Mediterranean, Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology, mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which had given rise to a host of new small nations, created a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stemmed from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the political violence which plagued these countries in the post war era, and which generally ended up with them being ruled by ultra-conservative or fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access historians have to newly-opened archives in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can know anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us c) because they have to come up with new theories and interpretations in order to keep their jobs.

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the liberal media and political commentators, all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. Historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea they have developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of hide-and-seek which is ‘the humanities’.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative and this is certainly supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current British government which is bumbling its way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so simple-minded to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you begin to wonder whether managing modern large human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing took place across Europe and beyond between 1918 and 1923


Related links

Great War-related blog posts

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)

Bond put the thought of his dead youth out of his mind. Never job backwards. What-might-have-been was a waste of time. Follow your fate and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-hand motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist pickled in gin or nicotine, or a cripple – or dead. (p.148)

From Russia With Love has 28 chapters divided into two parts: 1. The Planning 2. The Execution.

Part one – The Planning (chapters 1 – 10)

The opening chapters introduce us to Donovan Grant, ‘Red’ Grant, a psychopath who loves killing. He discovered this as a violent young man in the countryside of Northern Ireland, graduating from going out at full moon to kill animals, to slitting the throats of tramps and vagrants for fun, and then getting employment for his special talents with the local Sinn Fein/IRA.

Grant was sent off to do his National Service in Germany, where he promptly defected to the Russians who realised his special value, and selected and trained him intensively to become a perfect killing machine. In fact he has been made Chief Executioner for Bond’s nemesis, SMERSH, the execution department of what he calls the MGB (p.36). Now Grant is called Krassno Granitski, codename ‘Granit’.

Cut to the head of the SMERSH (Colonel General Grubozaboyschikov, known as ‘G’, p.39), the Head of Army Intelligence and a few other Soviet high-ups having a major conference. The Politburo is unhappy that Soviet intelligence has suffered recent setbacks (they mention a few recent examples, e.g. the unmasking of the atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs, a real event which took place in 1950). The Politburo has decided they must strike a decisive counter-blow against Western Intelligence. One by one, the assembled heads make a systematic review of all the NATO countries, assessing their intelligence services, until they come to England.

Here there is some shameless jingoism as Fleming has Soviet Intelligence marvelling at how the English secret service punches so much above its weight, with operatives who are paid a pittance and get no special privileges.

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

Very reassuring. And comments which link Bond effortlessly back to the Public School adventurism of Kipling, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.

So the Soviets agree to mount a high-profile attack on English Intelligence. But targeting who? Its head (M)? The public has never heard of him, he is secretive and well-protected, so it wouldn’t have much propaganda value. Well, what about this agent called Bond? Yes, he caused them a lot of trouble in the Le Chiffre affair (CasinoRoyale), and then by breaking up the Mr Big network in America (Live and Let Die), and then by foiling the Drax plan (Moonraker). Yes. They will assassinate James Bond to demoralise and humiliate Western intelligence.

The Head of the MGB calls in the head of SMERSH’s Directorate II (Operations and Executions) who turns out to be Rosa Klebb, a dumpy, frog-like woman (so memorably played by Lotte Lenya in the movie) and briefs her. We see her consulting with World Chess Champion and SMERSH strategist, Kronsteen (Head of the Planning Section of SMERSH, p.77), who is introduced to us in a taut scene at the climax of a major international chess game.

Then there is the scene where Klebb calls in Comrade Corporal Romanova, the stunningly beautiful and naive MGB operative who they are going to set up as the ‘honey trap’ for the well-known womaniser, Bond.

In a gruesome twist, after Klebb has terrified the rather simple Romanova into agreeing to the mission and briefed her, Klebb pops out of the room for a minute and then reappears in ‘something more comfortable’, namely a see-through nightie, and lies on a couch, dimming the lights, expecting to seduce Romanova. The latter obediently turns off the main light, but then runs out the door and down the corridor, apparently not to be punished for rejecting Rosa’s advances.

In the final chapter of Part One, we see Klebb restored to full uniform and complete control, verbally sparring with Kronsteen in SMERSH headquarters as they put the finishing touches to their plan. They choose Turkey as the location for the humiliation of the British Secret Service, since it is so close to the East, Bulgaria in particular.

The girl will lure Bond with the promise of giving him one of the Russians’ top secret Spektor coding machines. Grant will then be despatched to carry out the assassination. They will have cameramen and writers ready to capture Bond’s humiliation and death, written and film content they can then distribute via communist-controlled media (especially – Fleming says with a dig – in communist-dominated France).

Part two – The Execution (chapters 11 – 28)

Now we see it all from Bond’s point of view. James is bored. It’s a year since his last assignment (Diamonds Are Forever).  It’s August in London, hot and muggy and half the office is on holiday. And, we learn, his romance with Tiffany Case (who he picked up in Diamonds) has collapsed – she fell in love with an American Marine and went back to the States, leaving Bond to brood.

This allows Fleming to show us Bond at his most domestic, waking naked in bed, doing his morning exercises and, above all, having breakfast! Breakfast consists of:

  • Two large cups of very strong black coffee, no sugar, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex coffee-maker.
  • A single egg, boiled for three and a third minutes, served in a dark blue egg cup with a gold ring at the top. It must be a fresh, speckled egg from the French Marans hens owned by a friend of his housekeeper, May’s, in the country.
  • Two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter, and three jars of jam: Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade, and Norwegian Heather honey from Fortnum’s.
  • The coffee pot and the silver on the tray are Queen Anne. The china is the same dark blue and gold as the egg cup. (p.127)

The housekeeper who attends on James at the pull of the bell rope, the fussy breakfast, the morning paper just so – this snug and cosy portrait of moneyed bachelorhood takes us back to the Edwardian age or before, to the reassuring Baker Street rooms of Holmes and Watson and their ever-loyal housekeeper, Mrs Hudson.

M calls Bond to the office and briefs him: Head of the Turkey station, Darko Kerim, has received the strangest approach from ‘the other side’. One Corporal Tatiana Romanova of the Russian Security Service made an appointment to meet him on the Bosphorus ferry and explained that she has fallen in love with Bond on the basis of his photos alone and wants to defect with a brand-new top-secret Spektor machine – but only on condition that Bond in person receives her.

It’s so crazy it might actually be true, and so Bond packs his bags and catches a flight to Istanbul.

Flying to Istanbul

Just like previous plane journeys (from Florida to Jamaica in Live and Let Die, across the Atlantic then on to Las Vegas in Diamonds Are Forever) Fleming gives a very detailed account of the whole procedure, the make of plane, the sound of the jets, the view out the window etc. And, just as in Live and Let Die, the plane hits turbulence and Bond is genuinely afraid – his hands gripping the arm rests, his palms wet with fear (p.150). Realistic.

Darko Kerim

After checking into an uncharacteristically seedy hotel in Istanbul, Bond is taken to meet the head of Station T (for Turkey), Darko Kerim, who he immediately warms to.

It was a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel, debauched, but what one noticed more than its drama was that it radiated life. Bond thought he had never seen so much vitality and warmth in a human face. (p.160)

Kerim briefs him on the Russian girl, the offer of the Spektor machine, and the general situation in Turkey. The ‘other side’ are up to something, but he can’t put his finger on what. Kerim tells him about his life, raised one of 15 children in a harem of women kept by the biggest, strongest fisherman on the Black Sea. A spell as a circus strong man, when his father was contacted and paid by the English Head of Station T to report on Russian comings and goings. Darko was taken on the payroll and, with his extensive family and connections, ended up its head.

Bond warms to Darko and his simple, unashamed enjoyment of life in primal, Balkan passions.

Spying on the Russians

Kerim takes Bond up a secret underground passageway, in fact a huge water pipe built by the Byzantines, filled with thousands of rats and bats, until they are beneath the Russian Embassy.

Here Kerim’s people have fixed up a submarine periscope which allows them to see into the main meeting room of the Russian Embassy though not, alas, to hear anything. Bond watches some obviously senior Soviets meeting and then the arrival of Tatiana Romanova, a tall, elegant, obviously ballet-trained blonde girl, who looks strikingly like Greta Garbo.

The men look at her oddly, as if she is a prostitute. We know this is because they all know the nature of ‘the plan’ – for her to use her body to lure Bond into a ‘honeypot’ trap. But Bond doesn’t know this; he thinks she is concealing the fact that she wants to defect and so is puzzled by the mingled lasciviousness and contempt he sees in the Russians’ faces.

Catfight at the gypsies’

That night Darko’s Rolls Royce collects Bond from his hotel and they motor to the outskirts of Istanbul, to a dingy open-air cafe by a big, walled orchard. This is the base of the gypsies who work for Darko. Bond is introduced as a friend to the leader of the gypsies, Vavra, given pride of place at the head of the table and forced to eat along with the others the main part of their feast, a very hot stew to be eaten by hand, with bread to mop up the juice and raki to wash it down.

Turns out they’ve arrived at a bad moment: two young women have declared they’re in love with Vavra’s son, and are prepared to kill the other for his sake. The son has been sent to the hills and now, after the group feast, bolts are drawn back and Bond gets to watch along with the others a ferocious, vicious catfight between two gypsy women, Zora and Vida, who start off only wearing rags, and soon tear these off to emerge naked, sweat gleaming on their shapely breasts and rumps. Fleming knows how to write good pulp fiction.

Shootout at the gypsies’

And as if to prove it, right in the middle of the fight there’s a loud detonation as a group of Bulgarian assassins blow up the perimeter wall of the gypsies’ orchard and come streaming in, guns blazing. The women and children retreat into the trees while the men spring into action, Bond among them, saving Darko’s life at least twice, shooting dead several attackers in the massive fight which now develops, until a figure by the wall, the attackers’ leader Krilencu, blows and whistle and calls a retreat. They hop onto the scooters they arrived on and are gone into the darkness.

The gypsies tend to their wounded, the women return to the scene of the battle. Darko thanks Bond who sweeps aside his gratitude and wants to know why they were attacked. They go over to where the gypsies are torturing one of the surviving attackers, who says that they had orders to kill Darko but very specifically to leave Bond alone.

Bond gets the feeling he is a pawn in a bigger game. He and Darko make their thanks and apologies to Vavra and leave, but not before the proud, stern-faced gypsy says that, by killing so well, he can have final decision about which one of the wildcat women lives and which one dies.

Sickened by the slaughter, Bond insists that they both survive, throwing in as primitive reasoning that Vavra will need them to breed new sons for the tribe. Vavra is visibly displeased. Bond couldn’t care less.

The assassination of Krilencu

Immediately following the gypsy shooutout, Darko has Bond accompany him in his chauffeur-driven Rolls to another part of Istanbul, where they know they’ll find Krilencu, leader of the attackers on the gypsy camp, at the apartment of his mistress.

Darko explains that he’ll send in some of his sons masquerading as police and flush Krilencu out the secret escape hatch which Krilencu doesn’t know that Darko knows about.

With added pulp macabre-ness, this escape hatch is a trap door in the side of a hoarding used for advertisements. As Darko positions himself and assembles his lightweight rifle, Bond tries to make sense of the events of the evening. At a signal, Darko’s sons go into the building; a minute later the trapdoor in the wall opens and a figure drops to the sidewalk, crouches, turns to run and… Darko shoots him dead with one bullet.

They pack the rifle away, and Darko drops Bond back at his hotel where, characteristically, he has a long shower to wash off the blood and horror of the day.

Tatiana Romanova

Back out of the shower, it is only as he approaches the hotel bed that Bond realises someone is in it and hears a girlish giggle. It is the Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova, wearing only a black velvet choker. Fleming knows his S&M accessories.

What is interesting in this scene – as in the one where Rosa Klebb briefed her – is Fleming’s attempts to see things through Tatiana’s eyes. We are privy to her thoughts as she struggles to follow her simple instructions (seduce Bond and persuade him to take the Orient Express back to London). Except that the reader knows – and she does not – that once aboard the train, Bond will be murdered by Red Grant.

It’s not exactly James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but the mere fact that Fleming tries to reproduce the girl’s stream of consciousness (as he did, to some extent, with Tiffany Case in Diamonds) is interesting.

While she is trying to remember her lines, Bond tries to focus on the plausibility of her story and the feasibility of her plan to a) flee with the Spektor machine this very evening and b) flee aboard the Orient Express.

The reader knows full well it is a trap and it’s pretty thick of Bond not to realise it, but then, if he did, there would be no story.

Bond gets into bed with Tatiana, clasping her breast with its (as usual for a Bond girl) hard nipple, slipping his hand down over her tummy and watching her eyes flutter under the closed eyelids.

Cut to the next morning and Bond wondering whether he was too rough with her, thus bringing out the S&M feel of the scene. (The theme is continued a few pages later, where he leans down to Tatiana in bed, seizes her by the hair and pulls her head fiercely back before kissing her ‘long and cruelly’ on the mouth, p.199).

Meanwhile, as they move and writhe on the bed, Russian MGB operatives are filming it all on ciné cameras pointing down through the two-way mirror in this, the ‘honeymoon’, suite o the hotel. Everything has been set up in advance.

I like Umberto Eco’s point about Fleming writing to the endoxa or received opinions of his readers, with a strong tabloid flavour. Thus Fleming goes the extra mile to make the men filming Bond not just clinical operatives, but dirty voyeuristic perverts, noting how:

the breath rasped out of the open mouths of the two men and the sweat of excitement trickled down their bulging faces into their cheap collars. (p.186)

The Orient Express

It is the evening of the next day. We learn that Bond made love to Tatiana again, that morning, before she went off to work at the Russian Embassy. Now he is in the Istanbul railway station waiting for her by the Orient Express, as she requested. Exactly as it begins to move she calls out from a window and he leaps aboard. Here a) he again tries to figure out whether Tatiana is telling the truth and b) we see inside Tatiana’s mind as she continues to parrot the lies she was instructed in by her SMERSH masters.

Kerim is on the train, waiting outside their sleeper compartment and he and Bond share a cigarette while Kerim points out that three SMERSH agents are aboard the train. He says he’ll look after them, not killing them, but getting them thrown off. And by bribing the conductor, Kerim does get two thrown off the train but not the evil-looking third one, a ‘Herr Benz’.

Kerim and Bond have further talks about the girl, pondering what’s really going on, a conversation which expands on the various types of ‘game’ they are playing and which – by implication – the narrative is engaged in (see note below).

Bond toys with getting off the train with the girl and the Spektor machine but decides – dilettantishly, in Kerim’s view – to ‘play the game out to the end’. He is woken in the early hours by an alarmed conductor and taken to Kerim’s compartment. There is his friend, stabbed to death by ‘Benz’. But in his death throes, Kerim had himself managed to stab his assassin. The two men’s bodies are interlocked in a gruesome death embrace.

At Thessaloniki, one of Kerim’s sons boards the train only to be told the horrible truth. There is an eight hour waitover, so the son takes Bond and the girl to his flat, invites them to eat and drink the provisions laid on for them, while he makes sundry phone calls, and Bond looks out the window, smoking, full of remorse at getting his new-found friend into this plight and then killed, and still wondering whether to abandon the train. He makes one phone call to M in London, who suggests that he sends along a local British officer as back-up.

He doesn’t, and as they get back onto the train at the crowded station he sees an obvious Englishman making for the train among the thronging crowds. It must be the ‘back-up’ M had suggested sending to help out.

The over-dressed Englishman introduces himself as Norman Nash but we, the readers, know it is Red Grant, the SMERSH assassin. Grant knows all the correct passwords and has Service paraphernalia, but everything about him feels fake and wrong. Bond wonders if he might be mad. But Grant makes himself useful, is introduced to Tatiana, joins them for dinner, all as if acting a part, clumsily (which he, of course is).

At dinner he slips a sleeping draught into Tatiania’s wine, then, as she passes out, helps Bond get her back to the sleeper compartment. He says he’ll stay and keep first watch and Bond lies back on the lower bunk to sleep.

In the middle of the night Grant kicks Bond awake with a new tone of authority in his voice. He announces that he is a SMERSH agent, tasked with killing Bond. They’ll make it look like he murdered Tatiana, because she was blackmailing him with the tapes of them having sex, and forcing him to take her to England – and then had killed himself.

Left-wing journalists in France will give the story front page coverage, causing maximum embarrassment to his Service and country. Also the Spektor device is booby-trapped to kill the Service scientists who inspect it. ‘Quite a tidy little package, eh, old man,’ says Grant in his fake posh accent.

All the time Bond has been desperately cooking up a plan, asking to be allowed to smoke a cigarette then concealing the cigarette case inside the cover of his (Eric Ambler) paperback so that – when the climactic moment comes, just as the train enters the Simplon Tunnel, Bond moves the book and case over his heart just as Grant fires.

Bond falls to the floor of the compartment as if shot and finds himself conveniently close to the briefcase which he’s carried all over Europe and which, as you might expect, contains a few fancy tricks supplied by Q Department, including razor sharp knives which can be extracted from its base.

Bond waits till Grant has both feet on the bunk above him, and is preparing to shoot the sleeping Tatiania, when Bond suddenly corkscrews upwards, plunging the dagger deep into Grant’s groin then pushing more. But Grant in his death throes falls, grabs Bond’s ankles and starts pulling him off the bunk preparatory to strangling him. Desperately, Bond scrabbles for Grant’s gun, turns it towards him and fires the gun five times. There is a horrible gurgling noise then Grant’s body collapses to the floor.

After taking some time to recover, Bond sets about tidying up the compartment using his bedsheets to soak up the blood which covers it like an abattoir. He wakes Tatiania in time for the train’s arrival in Dijon, where they finally leave the train, after four nightmare-ish days putting his feet on blessedly solid unmoving ground.

Coda

Before shooting Bond, while explaining the details of the plot to frame and humiliate him and his Service, Grant had mentioned that he would then head to a rendezvous with the mastermind of the conspiracy, Rosa Klebb, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris the next day.

Instead – having contacted his friend Mathis from the French Deuxième Bureau to a) look after Tatiana b) despatch the booby-trapped Spektor case to London – it is Bond who keeps the appointment.

He goes up to the room and knocks and enter. Klebb is disguised as a wizened old crone, clacking away at her knitting in a luxury suite. She keeps up the pretence while Bond takes a chair opposite and announces who he is. Her hand goes to a bell pull and only some instinct makes Bond leap sideways as a hidden gun in Klebb’s chair shoots holes in the Bond’s now vacant one.

And then she is on him with the knitting needles which, Bond realises, have poisoned tips. He kicks one out of her hands then grabs a luxury Empire-era chair and traps her body in it, pushing it back up against the wall to trap her.

At which point Inspector Mathis enters with two assistants carrying a large laundry basket. Klebb will be drugged and flown to England and interrogated. But just as Bond slackens the chair to let the French agents get to her, Klebb lashes out with the poisoned tip of her shoe and stabs Bond in the calf.

The poison works in seconds, Bond going numb and cold from the legs up, before crashing unconscious onto the rich, red, carpeted floor. The End.


Good food

Bond/Fleming loves his food and conveys his enjoyment and relish very vividly. For example:

  • In his hotel in Istanbul, looking out over one of the most famous views in the world, Bond enjoys thick creamy yoghurt in a blue china bowl with ripe, ready-peeled green figs and jet black Turkish coffee (p.157).
  • With Kerim in the market he eats sardines en papillote and raki (p.136), followed by kebab tasting of smoked bacon fat and onions along with Kavaklidere, a rich coarse Balkan red wine (p.180). Bond, for once, is not impressed.
  • At the gypsy camp Bond eats along with everyone else a greasy ragout with bread and raki. Peasant food.

The Turks

Bond is surprisingly dismissive of the Turkish people.

So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibiliants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. They were bright, angry, cruel eyes that had only lately come down from the mountains. Bond thought he knew the history of those eyes. They were eyes that had been trained for centuries to watch over sheep and decipher small movements on far horizons. They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant’s fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn’t take to them. (p.153)

Fleming makes Darko, himself the son of a Turkish fisherman and an English mother, be very dismissive of his fellow Turks, in a whole stream of comments condemning their dirtiness and their poor, peasant cuisine.

As soon as his hoteliers discover that Bond is a guest of ‘Effendi Kerim’, they pack his things and move him into the best room in the place – the so-called ‘Honeymoon suite’ – bending low and apologising. Bond is sickened by their grovelling subservience (p.171). The more he sees of the generality of Turks, the more he thinks of them as ‘this country of furtive, stunted little men’ (p.173).

Later, as he accompanies Darko to the alley where they will assassinate Krilencu, Bond is overcome by repulsion at Istanbul.

From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were the only population. His instinct told him, as it has told other travellers, that Istanbul was a town he would be glad to get out of alive. (p.220)

Even as they prepare to catch the Orient Express out of town, Fleming makes time to say how much he dislikes the main Istanbul railway station.

The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul’s main station. (p.241)

Finally, as the Orient Express enters Italy with the promise of France ahead, Bond is hugely relieved to be ‘among friendly people, away from the furtive lands’ (p.283).

Everyone and their cat can accuse Fleming of sexism, racism and many other -isms, nothing could be easier. But I found it odd that people rarely seem to comment on the  solid anti-Turkism which runs throughout this book.

Naked

Bond routinely is naked, highlighting his sensuous self-awareness. He gets out of bed naked (p.123); on returning from the trip through the sewers to spy on the Russians Bond returns to his hotel, has a hot bath and a cold shower and sits naked sipping a vodka and tonic and enjoying sunset over the Bosphorus (p.193); at the end of the adventurous night with the gypsies Bond returns to the hotel room and enjoys the feel of the night breeze on his naked body (p.229).

Gadgets

The movies make ‘Q’ into a character, a grump old grey-haired inventor who provides Bond with nifty gadgets. In the books there is no person named ‘Q’, there is only a ‘Q branch’ which manages technical matters. For example, it is Q branch which supervises the skin graft on Bond’s right hand which takes place between Casino Royale and Live and Let Die.

This is the first book where they provide anything like a gadget, namely a hand-carried attaché case which contains:

  • two flat rows of 25 bullets packed between lining and case
  • in each side a flat throwing knife made by Wilkinson
  • a hidden compartment in the handle which, at the press of a button, would deliver a cyanide pill into Bond’s hand
  • a thick tube of Palmolive shaving cream which unscrews to reveal the silencer for his Beretta hand-gun
  • and a belt of 50 gold sovereigns slipped into the upper lining (p.145)

Play the game

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

According to tradition, the Public School ethos taught its pupils to ‘play up, play up, and play the game.’ As we all know, the rivalry between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in central Asia in the last decades of the 19th century was known as The Great Game. It was the background to Rudyard Kipling’s most successful novel, Kim, set among spies in north India. And throughout the Great War and on into the Imperial conflicts of the 1920s, ’30s and the Second War, upper-class Brits were taught to ‘play the game’, the archetypal Imperial game, of course, being cricket.

It comes as no great surprise, then, to note the importance of ‘the game’, of ‘game playing’, in the Bond books. After all the very first novel in the whole series entirely rotates around a complicated card game which requires the author to explain its rules in great detail along with the odds and how to gamble on it.

Similarly, Moonraker‘s first part is devoted to a long and detailed exposition of a game of bridge which Bond rigs in order to win and so humiliate his rich opponent, Hugo Drax. Similarly, Live and Let Die features a short but powerful scene at a gambling table in Las Vegas which again requires the author to give a detailed explanation of the game and its rules.

So it is pretty obvious that games are central to the Bond novels. And it is only a small step up to notice that Bond conceives of each separate assignment as a ‘game’ in the same spirit. When the downmarket hotel he’s checked into unexpectedly bumps him up to the best room in the place, Bond reflects they might be deferring to his acquaintance with Darko Kerim. Or maybe there’s something more behind it.

Bond decided not to care if there was. The game, whatever it was, had to be played out. If the change of rooms had been the opening gambit, so much the better. The game had to begin somewhere. (p.173)

And so, 70 pages later, once Tatiana has persuaded him to take her aboard the Orient Express but Bond is trying to assess whether she’s telling the truth or not,

Bond calmly admitted to himself that he had an insane desire to play the game out and see what it was all about. (p.258)

It is this devil-may-care whimsicality, this seeing the whole Cold War struggle as a kind of extended game of cricket, which sets the British apart from the Americans or the Russians, making them sometimes – in the spy novels of Le Carré or Deighton – seem laughable and absurdly amateurish. But in the more jingoistic lineage of John Buchan or James Bond, it is what gives our playboy heroes their effortless superiority.

He reflected briefly on the way the Russians ran their centres – with all the money and equipment in the world, while the Secret Service put against them a handful of adventurers, underpaid men, like this one, with his second-hand Rolls and his children to help him. (p.198)

The game-playing rhetoric becomes a little more interesting in chapter 23 in an extended conversation with Kerim. Kerim points out the way M and Bond are both alike in being gamblers; they are taking a risk on the girl and her story and are interested to find out what the game is about. Kerim contrasts their English adventurism with the Russian national game, chess, which the Russians play with ruthless professionalism:

These Russians are great chess players. When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for. They are foreseen and countered. (p.271)

This of course reminds us of the scenes in Part One featuring Kronsteen, Russian world champion chess player who also happens to be head of planning for SMERSH, and who we see planning with Rosa Klebb every detail of the conspiracy to murder Bond.

Bond says: ‘All I ask is to go on with the game until we find out.’ But Kerim counters with his own position. ‘I was not brought up “to be a sport”‘, he says sarcastically about the well-known English addiction to playing with a straight bat etc.

‘This is not a game to me. This is business.’ (p.273)

And we have seen doe ourselves how well-organised Kerim’s operation is and how it extends to his own sons and nephews; it really is a business.

Now Kerim makes a further analogy. Bond is playing the game as if it was a game of billiards. He has hit the white ball with perfect accuracy at the red which will, with complete inevitability, go into the pocket. But what if an airplane crashes on the billiard hall or a gas main blows it up. All the rules of billiards continue to be true, but they are destroyed by the broader context. Thus Bond’s silly game playing – his childish wish to play things out and see what happens – is trumped by the complexity of the real world – by the infinite multiplicity of other games which overlap, impinge on, and trump the small, neat, logical one Bond thinks he is playing.

It’s not that either one is right, it’s that Fleming takes so much time talking about games, and games within games, which is fascinating.


Bond biographical details

Each book tells us a little more about our hero. In this one we learn that Bond is six feet tall (p.159). That Bond’s flat is not just off the King’s Road, it is in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road (p.123). His Scottish housekeeper, May, can never bring herself to say ‘sir’, but sometimes adds an ‘s’ to the end of her sentences. The only newspaper Bond reads is The Times (p.124).

The early section has the MGB officials reading out Bond’s full file, which includes the facts that he commenced work with the Service in 1938 and was awarded the CMG in 1953 (p.68).

In Diamonds Bond told Tiffany he was in effect ‘married’ to his boss, M. Here, he sits in M’s office and looks across ‘at the tranquil, lined sailor’s face that he loved, honoured and obeyed’, deliberately echoing the Anglican marriage service (p.134).

Interestingly, on the flight to Istanbul Bond reads The Mask of Dimitrios, often thought of as the best of Eric Ambler’s pre-war thrillers (p.144 and p.302) and which is set, or at least starts off, in Turkey. A very deliberate hommage.

We learn that the British Secret Service debriefs enemy agents at a secluded house nicknamed ‘the Cage’, near Guildford (p.269).


Credit

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming was published in 1957 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of the Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes (1996)

It was getting hard to recognise myself. There was Kasim, too, the sudden impulse to seize his legs and throw him over the pulpit into the sea. And I was just a very ordinary young man, a mineralogist with a degree in economics…It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. For God’s sake, I wasn’t a killer. (p.276)

Innes’ final novel and, at 426 pages, the longest and strangest of the lot. It has all the strengths which make him compelling and intriguing, along with many of the weaknesses which make him frustrating and perplexing and have probably helped him go so very out of fashion:

  • Exotic foreign locations First half set in Romania just as Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship was collapsing (December 1989); second half set in lawless Aghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal (February 1989).
  • Everybloke narrator Paul Cartwright, who works for a mineral and metals company, the oddly-named Resource Potentials, reclaiming scrap in developing or ex-communist countries.
  • Everybloke narrator’s personal problems His mum & dad moved to Australia, where his dad died and his mum took up with a wife-beating b*stard, Kasim, while young Paul was packed off to boarding school. The Traumatic Moment in the past (which dogs so many Innes’ protagonists) is when Paul goes sailing with Kasim; the boat gets caught in a storm and is rolling madly and suddenly Paul has the urge to throw Kasim overboard, and then there’s a moment when he could have reached out and helped pull Kasim back onboard – but he doesn’t – he watches the waves break over him, he watches Kasim drown. Nightmares wake him in various foreign hotels. [The thriller protagonist must be psychologically scarred.]
  • Gothic family secrets The novel starts with Paul meeting an ageing dissident Romanian writer – Mihai Kikinda, and there is a lot of tortured, evasive non-communication about Mihai and his wife, Ana, and about their, ‘daughter’ Vikki, who Paul fell in love with years ago, on his previous trips to Romania when he was a teenager. Through the fog of evasions it seems as if Vikki isn’t Mihai and Ana’s daughter at all but was adopted: Paul is stunned: Who from? Why? Nobody will tell us.
  • Sex What the narrator does tell us about the mysterious Vikki is:
    • that since childhood she’s been obsessed with dancing, solitary dancing, going through steps and motions in the privacy of her bedroom or the house’s living room
    • that her need for solitariness feeds into a gift she has for computers: she recently told her adoptive father she has begun to hack into government computers (p.38)
    • that she took the narrator’s virginity. She ‘raped him’. They were both about 17, they were dancing together and, at the end of the dance, hot and sweaty she forced him to the floor, unbuttoned his flies etc. Innes has always had a robust, straightforward heterosexual eye for the ladies and over the years has described male desire in all its glory and humiliation: for every game-hunter’s daughter ripping open her blouse and pulling the narrator’s head to her breasts (The Big Footprints), there’ve been episodes like his going to bed with Barbara Ward but being unable to get an erection (Target Antarctica) or being interrupted just as things were getting steamy (Medusa). Innes isn’t salacious or pornographic; he just notices, as most men do, when a woman’s top highlights her breasts or when her nipples show through her blouse – notices it, notes it, before moving on to think about the weather, or reefing in the sails, or estimating the flight time to the destination. It’s part of his narrator’s life, but not an all-consuming part.

Anti-suspense The most characteristic feature of Innes’ novels is the pathological inability of anyone to tell anyone else what is going on. There’s lots of dialogue in which people seem go out of their way to be evasive and non-committal and the text refers again and again to the same four or five physical gestures: pause, hesitate, shrug, shake the head, go silent.

He paused… I shook my head… A pause.. He fell silent… He hesitated.. He didn’t answer that for a moment… Silence then… He was silent for a time… He shook his head… He didn’t say anything for a long time… He hesitated… He shrugged.. Mihai shrugged… He shook his head… He shrugged…

On page after page after page. With these kinds of evasions Iain Ward spent the two preceding novels completely failing to explain to the different narrators why the devil they were sailing to the Antarctic, and Iris Sunderby systematically refused to clarify her relationship with Angel Gomez or Eduardo and then Pete Kettil refused to tell anyone what he’d seen out on the ice. Innes characters shrug so much I’m amazed their heads don’t fall off and go rolling across the floor.

The plot

The dissident writer

Paul Cartwright is in Constantza, a port town in south Romania, on a job to assess the scrap value of the port workings and rusty old ships. But he has taken advantage of the trip to visit the old dissident writer, Mihai Kikinda, who he used to visit when he was first brought to the country by his uncle Jamie. During the visit there’s a knock at the door and Mihai hussles Paul behind a curtain, then opens the door to a brutal Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who asks him where’ he’s sent his latest dissident pamphlet to be published, then starts to strangle him. Paul comes out of hiding to attack the policeman but in the midst of the struggle Mihai stabs the cop, killing him.

Paul and Mihai throw the body off their balcony onto a passing lorry, then Paul drives in a state of high anxiety towards the capital, Bucharest. Mihai has given him instructions to drop off the text of his latest pamphlet at a printer, then make contact with one Luca, a Jewish dissident, who will help him.

Before and after the killing we learn in Innes’ roundabout fashion about Mihai’s wife, Ana, who, at a grand assembly of artists and poets in front of Ceaușescu, was foolhardy enough to protest the regime’s brutality, and especially its treatment of her husband and got as far as slapping the dictator in the face before being dragged off to be tortured. Mihai eventually shamefacedly admits that Ana was operated on to make her infertile, allowed back to her sorrowing husband, before being arrested, disappearing again and is probably now dead. We also hear about Mihai’s numerous arrests, tortures and beatings, painting a grim enough portrait of Ceaușescu’s Romania.

But it isn’t all communist brutality, as Paul finds himself describing his unhappy childhood and his recurring nightmare of watching his bully step-father drown. We learn that Paul, on his frequent trips to Romania, watched little Vikki grow into a young woman and then was astonished when she took his virginity in this very house (p.68). She is now, apparently, a computer hacker and was smuggled out of the country towards the East, into Asia, by some ‘sponsor’.

This is a lot of information to process in just 40 or so pages. Paul drives the dead Securitate man’s car to his hotel where he receives a telegram from the boss of Resource Potentials, Alex Goodbody, instructing him that his next trip will be to central Asia to assess scrap opportunities in the former Soviet Republics, and to replace Zelinsky, an RP employee, whose dead body is being ‘brought down’ from the interior. Paul broods. What did Zelinsky die of? What is the assignment, exactly?

The overthrow of Ceaușescu

Still in a sweat of fear, Paul drives to Bucharest where he checks in to a high-class hotel for foreigners, and gets chatting to a French freelance news photographer, Antoine Caminade, who fills him in on the political situation ie Ceaușescu’s rule is collapsing. In fact it collapses the next day, a few days before Christmas 1989, when Ceaușescu calls a mass rally in Bucharest’s main square to rail against the dissidents who have been fomenting revolt in the provincial town of Timișoara, only to be horrified when the vast crowd in front of him starts chanting insults and abuse. He and his wife flee the building and are helicoptered away, while disorder takes over the streets.

Meeting Anamaria

It is against this backdrop that Cartwright gets a coded message from Luca, Mihai’s contact, telling him to be outside the house with the tame boar in the garden (!) at 10pm. Once there, a shambling figure walks over to his car, gives him the password and gets in. It turns out to be a very bossy, very capable young woman who Luca has assigned to help Cartwright escape because she herself must flee the country. He notices she has a badly disfiguring hairlip and a limp from a damaged leg, but this makes her take no crap from anyone. She demonstrates her toughness by the unflinching way she attacks guards at an Army checkpoint then looses off a Kalashnikov at them as a thoroughly rattled Cartwright screeches the car off into the night.

But there is no high-speed car chase; this is Romania, where even the police can’t afford petrol. Paul discovers the young firebrand’s name is Anamaria, and she navigates him to the town of Tulcea, on the edge of the Danube marshes, where it is arranged for them to be smuggled aboard a Greek merchant ship. Here they rendezvous with a young fisherman, Rudi, son of a contact of Luca’s. He ferries them out to an island in one of the many channels through the marshes, and there follows a scene which is very Innes in being wildly improbable and somehow very powerful.

Rudi leaves Paul and Anamaria in the depths of winter on a reed island with a foodbag cobbled together by his mother, matches and some plastic sheets, and that’s it! For 36 hours, two nights and a day, they are thrown into an extreme survivalist situation, trying to light a fire, trying to cook fish they catch, and then huddling together for warmth under a plastic sheet while snow falls on them. It’s a great opportunity for some powerful writing about raw winter nature and human endurance. Why are they there? The only safe place to hide out from the police while they wait for the ship which will take them to freedom.

Anamaria’s story

But also, and typically Innes, the narrator relentlessly badgers the girl about her background, and she for her part squirms and evades for page after page. Eventually, after lots of shrugging and hesitating and long silences, he extracts the full story: Anamaria is in fact Mihai and Ana’s natural child, who was taken away from them at an early age and dumped in a state orphanage. (That is the reason Mihai and Ana adopted Vikki.)

Anamaria had a hard upbringing, running away at various times and living on the streets, which meant prostituting herself from an early age. She was passed on to a gang of pimps and then into the control of one Gregor, a real monster, who pimped her out and raped her continually. But it was only when he took the baby which resulted from all this sex, stole her baby away while she was still breast-feeding it, never to be seen again that he snapped. The next time Gregor was raping her, Anamaria killed him with a long hairpin inserted into his coccyx. Ugh. (It is typical of Innes’s narrative strategy that the rapist is made to be Gregor Dinca, brother of the Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who we saw being killed in the opening chapter. Always the characters come in family sets in Innes.)

Anamaria made her way back to her natural parents who didn’t want her, her ugly hairlip, her limp, her shattered body, preferring the beautiful, nimble, clever dancer, Vikki. And so she was out on the streets again, homeless and hussling – more or less her condition when she approaches Cartwright.

Suffering women

Once again, as at the core of Target Antarctica, Innes has embedded a terrible story about the appalling lives, the terrible suffering and abuse, which women can be subjected to in our day and age. It is put down, along with the sterilisation of Ana, as a documentary fact, an incident in the narrative, like many others; it is up to us what we make of it, what value we give it, whether to be disgusted or outraged or whatever – but it is noticeable, this awareness or concern and the urge to record, the plight of women in so much of the modern world.

On board the Baba Tonka

Rudi turns up and ferries them back from the island to a derelict quay while they wait for the ship to arrive. When it does he rows them out to it, they climb a rope ladder up the side, Cartwright finds himself agreeing to pay Anamaria’s passage as well as his ($50 for him, $25 for her) and collapses asleep in the mercifully warm clean cabin he’s been given. There’s a small interlude when she appears at his bedside worrying that Customs will search the ship and what to do about the Kalashnikov we know she has rolled up in her bedclothes. ‘Throw it over the side,’ Paul says and turns over and back to sleep.

Istanbul

They bid the captain farewell and walk out into the bustling streets of Istanbul. Earlier, the captain of the merchant ship had let him use the ship-to-shore radio, over which his boss, Alex, in London, had given him instructions on who to meet and where to pick up the plane ticket for his flight on to Pakistan. Cartwright picks them up then checks into one of the swankiest hotels in town, with a breath-taking view over the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Golden Horn. He walks the streets and, returning to the hotel, recognises Anamaria amid the crowd. She is on the streets again, nursing her cash for a flight East, to Alma-Ata (characteristically, it’s not completely explained why).

Generously, Cartwright invites her for a meal – but she hasn’t got anything to wear – she can borrow something – but she needs a bath – she can have a bath in his room etc — and it leads to her walking, amazed, into his luxury hotel room – this harelipped, limping, used and abused street urchin – Cartwright running a massive bubble bath for her, giving her chilled champagne in the bath, then giving her lovely pyjamas and a nightgown to wear to sit on the balcony eating caviar then steak as the sun sets. At one point he’s chatting on about something, looks round and realises she’s fast asleep. Tenderly, he lifts and carries her to the other of the twin beds, tucks her up then goes back to the balcony to enjoy the sunset. In the middle of the night he’s awoken by her kissing his hand then pressing something into it, he begins to murmur something but the door has shut and she has disappeared out of his life. (Forever?) Next morning he wakes to discover he is grasping a small gilt crucifix.


Briefing on Central Asia

Cartwright checks out of the hotel and takes a cab to the airport. In the departure lounge he is surprised to recognise Antoine Caminade from Bucharest. He walks right up to Cartwright and makes no bones about it – he’s following him. For the length of the flight from Istanbul to Karachi (pages 206 to 224) Caminade engages in a long rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue: this includes the fact that his grandfather, Pierre Caminade, died while exploring up in the Pamir mountains, north of Afghanistan, following in the alleged footsteps of two hardy Victorian women explorers, until he was lost in a snowstorm, dug out a snow-hole near the Khunjerab Pass, wrote up a diary of his adventures, before dying of exposure, the diary found by rescuing Gurkhas and eventually mailed home to his wife and for young Antoine to stumble upon and read.

But Caminade’s monologue also extends over lots of other issues affecting Central Asia – from the folly of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the warlike mentality of the Mujahideen, with repeated emphases on the wickedness of Stalin’s policy of relocating entire populations throughout the region, and the horror of Soviet policy in Chechnya. Between him and Cartwright the text makes lots of references to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as to the various mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Karakorams and so on.

In short the flight serves to indicate that Caminade is up to something (typically, we aren’t told what) and has a typically Innesesque family story (his dead grandfather leaving a ‘secret diary’ which contains hints or suggestions of… what?) along with a great deal of background information on the part of the world Cartwright is flying into. All useful preparation for part two of this long story.

Cartwright lands in Karachi and goes to a good hotel. He meets the contact Alex Goodbody had told him about, who gives him tickets and preparation for the internal flight north to Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Here these is more local description, before he is being shaken awake in his hotel bedroom by his local contact, Abdullah, telling him he has to run to meet the man he’s come this far to locate, one Laun Said.

The train chase

Laun Said is the native name adopted by a Welsh Army officer, at one time (apparently) a Brigadier. He mentions (and brings to mind) the ‘Great Game’, the term every public schoolboy uses to refer to the competition between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia to control Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, gateway to the great northern plain of India.

Laun’s native fixer wakes Cartwright from a deep sleep in his hotel, hussles him into his clothes and drives him quickly to a crowded market place in Peshawar. Here Laun Said turns up and plunges the text into a panic as he says, ‘Get in the bloody Land Rover,’ and off they drive at top speed to intercept the puffing old steam engine which has just set off to climb up through the Khyber Pass. Throughout this breakneck, harepin-bend, terrifying high-speed drive up into the mountains, Laun, in typical Innes fashion, refuses to say what Cartwright’s mission is or why they’ve been appointed to meet, nor does he tell us why they’re driving after the train in such mad fashion.

A long silence… Another shrug… The answer was another shrug… (page 236)

Eventually they park on the road near a siding ahead of the train and, just as it passes them, a man in native costume jumps off, comes running towards Cartwright followed by shots. The man nearly makes it before being hit and skidding forwards over the rubble of the siding, while Laun calmly takes sight and shoots two of the shooters on the train. One of them falls off and under the wheels of the following carriage, being immediately sliced in half in a squelch of blood and guts.

Then the train has passed a corner and is gone. Laun comes ambling back across the rubble to confirm what he feared. His man is dead. He was Ginger McCrae, his best friend, the two of them had been on many dangerous missions together. Laun thinks the assassins were from the Chechen mafia, revenge for some former operation. They drive up the trail a bit more to an old British graveyard and here Laun gets Cartwright to help him bury McCrae in a shallow grave. Before doing so Laun closes the corpse’s eyes and kisses him on the cheeks and lips. A little later, when they’ve got to a town, Laun jokingly says their host offers everything, food, drink, girls, boys, to which Cartwright emphatically replies that he is not interested and he is not homosexual. There is one other fleeting reference to the fact Cartwright has realised that Ginger and Laun had been lovers.

— Like lots of other sexual references in Innes this is mentioned, noted, and then the plot continues. I admire his acceptance of the sexual side of human nature. These may be preposterously Gothic adventure yarns, but the author is neither salacious or moralistic about sexuality. This is human nature; OK; now, what’s next?

Laun Said

Laun and Cartwright drive on up the mountain into the Khyber Pass, while Cartwright continues his luckless attempts to find out what the hell is going on. ‘How did Zelinsky die?’ he asks. ‘Exposure in the snow,’ Laun replies. ‘What is my assignment?’ ‘Haven’t a clue, old boy,’ say Laun. ‘Got to find out what Ginger was trying to tell me. Here, see this scrap of paper; it has something scratched on it before Ginger jumped off the train: What do you think he was trying to tell us?’

And thus, not too subtly, we feel Innes shifting the narrative from being (at least a bit) rooted in a sort of mundane reality (scrap metal dealing), onto pure John Buchan adventure yarn territory – our hero the passenger of a battered Land Rover driving up the main Khyber Pass road towards the Afghan border with a heavily disguised British Army officer, in pursuit of some undefined mystery. Come on, chaps.

Ahmed Khan

They stop at a walled citadel – an opportunity for Innes to tell us about the design and purpose of these buildings, as strongholds for the numerous competing warlords who are the region’s natural rulers – for Laun to ask the whereabouts of the master. He is further along the road at Landi Khotal, and here they meet Ahmed Khan at his well-defended warehouse. There is a typically evasive Q&A about Zelinsky’s mission: Khan thinks he was heading north-east and it was something to do with jewels. Thinks.

Laun parks the car at a spot along the highway with a stunning view of the mountains. He thinks Ginger had come down from another mountain range, further to the east. Is Cartwright willing to chance it? Chance what, Cartwright asks. Obviously Laun doesn’t tell us: ‘He shook his head, sitting silent and very still.’ But Cartwright agrees to follow Laun’s hunch.

Laun drives them back down to the plain, through Jamrud, through Peshawar and into Islamabad. There Cartwright spends a bad-tempered week wondering what the hell’s going on. All he knows is that Laun is buying snow equipment, thermals, masks, skis, the lot. And somehow that perishing Frenchman, Antoine, manages to track him down.

In an intense 1-on-1 interview, Antoine discloses that he’s found the final pages of his grandfather’s diary in the hands of a storyteller in the souk. He knows Cartwright has been making enquiries about jewels, about lapis lazuli, rubies and sapphires. Does he know why Zelinsky was murdered? No. Does he know why McCrae was murdered? No. Does he know why his company wants the jewels? No. Caminade offers him the final pages of the diary for $20 million.

(All the way through, the evidence has been that Cartwright is more than a humble mineralogist and now he phones Goodbody in London and conveys Caminade’s message in code. He seems to be morphing, in front of our eyes, into a special agent of some kind.)

Into the mountains

Cartwright is shaken awake by Laun. Russians are making enquiries about them, maybe the KGB, maybe the mafia, who knows. Hurry. They bundle downstairs, into the Land Rover to find a new character, Kuki, an Urdu taxi driver, and they’re off on another long distance drive, through Peshawar and right up the road towards the Malakand Pass. They rough it as the cold becomes more intense, snow almost blocking the pass. Once over they stop for hot coffee and Laun has a pee. Cartwright notices with shock that his penis is mutilated. Bunch of Tibetan guards on the China-Tibet pass, apparently; began hacking at him thinking he was a Russian till the Chinese guards arrived and saved his life. Atrocity. Danger. Fear.

The story of the old Buddhist

They are marooned in the next settlement, below the Shandur Pass, while the snow is cleared further up and here Camanide catches up with them. This time he tells them a long story which gets to the heart of the plot: His grandfather was travelling through the mountains in the footsteps of two lady explorers when he stumbled across a Buddhist stupa almost buried in the sand. As he excavated it he came across the mummified body of a Chinese man with a leather satchel. Inside the satchel was an account by the man, a Buddhist monk, who had travelled far and wide. It contained a description of a mysterious lost valley, which he nicknames Nirvana, long and narrow with an emerald-coloured lake at the end. If you stand at the right place at the right hour a tall mountain in the north-west appears completely black. In a crack in that mountain is the gateway to the home of the troglodytes. These are tall, fair-haired strangers who carry double-edged axes and speak an unknown tongue. In the depths of the mountain is the shrine to their fearsome thunder god with a huge hammer.

a) The text has prepared us for this rather amazing revelation on a several occasions, having the narrator remember stories about ancient Russia and the tradition that it was founded by blonde Vikings from Sweden and that these wanderers roamed far and near, founding Rus and the city of Kiev, penetrating as far as Constantinople.
b) There had been hints scattered throughout the text of a lost kingdom or scattered references to hobgoblins and troglodytes. Now the whole narrative has exploded into an unashamed homage to the lost world genre, as pioneered by Henry Rider Haggard in the 1880s.

Just to push it way over the bounds of plausibility, Caminade’s parting shot is that the ruler of this lost world is said to have a sultana who dances for him, a beautiful slender girl who dances night and day. Of course – it must be Vikki, from part one of the story when it still inhabited the real world. Now she has morphed along with the rest of the narrative, to become part of a fairy story!

The lost river

Did I mention the lost river? At several points in their earlier conversations, Laun had mentioned that the Russians began two road tunnels under the Pamirs to provide access to Afghanistan. Tunnel two was completed and used extensively. Tunnel one is less well-known because the Russians abandoned it half built. This is because they discovered an underground river running across the intended route. A hot underground river, as if fed by hot springs. Does this recall Rider Haggard or Jules Verne? Up in the mountains Laun and Cartwright blunder on through snowstorms, abandoning the Land Rover and proceeding on skis with Everest-style one-man tents. Conditions get really rough until they can’t see any way forward, with only the GPS and the co-ordinates Caminade gave them to guide them.

(Caminade had wanted to make a deal with our guys: his translation of his grandfather’s notes, descriptions of the magic valley and the Black Mountain, in return for letting him come along. After he’s left, Laun and Cartwright debate it. But amid all the detail of his story, Caminade had mentioned that he’d got a professor in Peshawar to translate the dead monk’s text. Laun and Cartwright both realise this academic must have circulated or at least mentioned the text and the secret valley, along with its rumoured treasure; somehow word had got to the KGB or Chechens, resulting in Ginger’s death and Laun being followed. On this basis (and for the simple reason that he’s French) Laun refuses to take Caminade with them. He and Cartwright set off in the middle of the night to elude him.)

Now, days later, snuggled up close to each other for body warmth in the tent high in the snowed-in mountains:

a) Cartwright parallels the situation with the night he spent bundled together with Anamaria in the freezing cold island of reeds in the Danube delta
b) Cartwright nervously worries about Laun’s homosexuality, mentioned a few times earlier – but Laun doesn’t try anything
c) Instead, Laun tells him another tall tale. This time Laun was a young man travelling through the area and manages to hitch a lift from a metal contractor up to the tunnel diggings, where he helps the contractor unload and then – ta-da! – changes into the Soviet officer’s uniform he just happens to have smuggled in the lorry – bluffs his way past the guard at the entrance, and gets himself given a guided tour of the long well-engineered tunnel that goes thousands of metres into the mountain, until, sure enough, they come to the river bed, open and revealed with a walkway across it. It is at this moment that Laun sees a stocky blonde-haired, blue-eyed underground Viking people. He shouts across the river in an unknown language. The Russian engineer shouts back that they’re closing the tunnel off. The Viking nods in approval and disappears into a crack in the wall.

If I was Cartwright I might have shouted, ‘Well, why the devil didn’t you tell me any of this before?’ But Laun has fallen asleep. As usual in Innes, the characters know almost all the story beforehand, they just refuse to tell anyone else about it. Next day they stagger on through a permanent blizzard, several times barely escaping falling over cliff edges or into crevasses, all very filmic, until the snow lightens for a moment and they can see the suggestion of Nirvana Valley beneath them and a tall dark mountain looming out of the gloom. They press on and camp for another 48 hours in a howling blizzard. When it stops – they are woken by voices outside their tent. Laun tries Pathan and Urdu, no response, Cartwright tries some simple Swedish he picked up working with Swedish navvies in Canada – and the voices respond, telling them to stay there till they return. They have met the Lost Viking Tribe!

In the underground kingdom

They are led down into the mysterious underground kingdom in scenes reminiscent of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Rider Haggard – are given the kind of tour of the facilities all characters are given in pulp sci-fi stories, having it all explained to them, how the thermal energy is converted to the electricity that powers the fluorescent lighting everywhere, and the lifts and the computer terminals (!) and the radio aerial. And there to greet them – in a scene beyond parody – is that damn Frenchman Antoine again. Turns out he had been there once before and knew the way into the front entrance (Why didn’t he tell them? Why doesn’t anyone tell anyone anything in an Innes novel?)

But what Laun and Cartwright quickly discover is there is trouble in Paradise. As so often in the lost world genre, outsiders arrive in an idyllic secret kingdom to find it isn’t so idyllic after all, and their arrival brings a smouldering situation to a head.

Turns out the current king, Ali Khan, is an outsider who made himself powerful as Chief Secretary before almost certainly murdering the old king and marrying Vikki. For – beyond the bounds of the wildest fantasy – it is indeed Vikki, Paul’s old friend from Romania, who is the now the aloof and powerful Sultana of Nirvana. And Vikki has secured the rescue of Anamaria, the street urchin he shared those nights with on the reed island, finding her and having her flown to join her in her underground kingdom. (Did Anamaria know this was in the offing when she made her hasty escape from Romania? Why was she set on getting to Alma-Ata, had she had word from Vikki? And I thought she was meant to bitterly resent the way Vikki usurped her in her parents’ affections?)

Vikki has just given birth to a baby. However, the baby is a girl, not the boy child required by the psychotic Khan. And at that moment, as all of this is being breathlessly explained to Paul and Laun, the king returns from a foreign visit and sweeps into the chamber demanding to know whether it is true that the child is a girl, well Is she, is she?,He rips open its swaddling clothes to confirm it, and in an excess of fury, dashes its brains out against the rock walls. Vikki shrieks, Anamaria sneaks round behind the king and slips one of her fatal hat-pins into his belly just as Cartwright, reacting on instinct, draws his gun and fills Khan full of bullets. He’s only been there a few hours and now he’s shot the king of the place. Terrific.

There is a moment of silence before all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Erik Bigblad arrives, the figurehead of the traditional Swedish faction against the Asiatics represented by Khan, and he quickly takes control. He and his men disarm the Asiatic men, and the coup is complete.

(Note, even in this adventure fantasy setting, the odd parallelism with the earlier narrative, for this is the second time Anamaria has murdered a man for killing a baby – the first time it was Gregor, her pimp, who took away her own baby. And note also the heedless, almost unstoppable, brutality of men towards the most innocent and vulnerable in society.)

Back in London

Surreally, the last chapter is set in London three weeks later, where Cartwright is making his report to his nominal boss, Alex Goodbody, all the while trying to decide whether to strike out and set up his own company. That damn Frenchman turns up again and describes some of the scenes Cartwright missed back in the valley, namely the swearing-in ceremony of his Vikki as new ruler of Nirvana. Antoine reveals that he wants to leave the French mineralogy firm that employs him – why don’t they pool their resources and set up a company to work with the Vikings to exploit their mineral discoveries? Cartwright decides: Yes! He will!


Thoughts

Quite obviously the text is a farrago, a dog’s dinner of a text mashing up half a dozen different stories into one overcharged fantasia. The first two settings are reasonably realistic – communist Romania and Pakistan at the end of the Russo-Afghan War… and the plot up to that point had made use of Innes’ traditional technique of basing far-fetched coincidences around families with dark secrets – Cartwright’s recurrent nightmare memories of killing his step-dad prepares us for the voodoo theme of the two sisters, offspring of the ill-fated Kikinda marriage, deformed by communism’s brutalisation of women, whose story plays out against two continents.

Innes’ last three novels – IsvikTarget Antarctica and Delta Connection – contain particularly harrowing episodes, scenes which are so intense as to be almost visions, barely related to the mundane world which surround them or the workaday plots which frame them: the poor wretches in the ship’s hold being sprayed with anthrax toxin in Isvik; the devastating story of La Belle Phuket’s capture, torture and rape in Antarctica; Anamaria’s brutalisation in the orphanages and streets of Romania.

There aren’t many articles about Innes on the web, but the half-dozen I’ve read all say that he became more concerned about environmental issues in his later years – and he certainly wrote novels which feature oil pollution, deforestation and us hunting Africa’s mammals to extinction. But I think this final batch of novels go deeper than that; their far-fetched plots and dizzy coincidences are merely the framework he uses to deliver his deeper message:- it is not just that we can’t get on with the natural world without destroying it; we can’t even get on with each other.

This novel abounds in many throwaway visions of horror: Cartwright recounts flying over a bush fire in Western Australia and watching it catch and overtake a herd of kangaroos, turning them to twisting chunks of burned flesh. Laun spends a page remembering a doctor who accompanied a detachment of troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass until ambushed by Pathans, who shot all the soldiers before running down to cut the women and children to pieces. At several places (to prepare us for the Secret Valley ending) Cartwright thinks about the Rus, the legendary Viking travellers who sailed up the inland rivers of Russia, who launched their ships over the bodies of women sacrificed to their gods, the sound of their screaming as their bones were pulverised… and so on.

I think these last novels are about man’s inhumanity to man – and the central part played by the terrible stories of la Belle Phuket and Anamaria are intended as a searing indictment of how, for all the wonders of the internet and the gee-whizz gadgetry of space travel, we are unable to protect even the most vulnerable and innocent on this, our own, terrible planet.

What is harder to reconcile, or process, is the way this, Innes’ final story, turns away from these earlier levels of meaning to mutate into a late-Victorian romance of almost fairy-tale simplicity. It is so weird it is almost avant-garde. The inhumanity which I thought it was about until the last 70 or so pages, is completely trumped by the strange fantasy ending. The gripping chase in a car across night-time Romania, the survivalist episode on the reed island, the high-tension pursuit of the old steam locomotive up into the mountains – these are traditional thriller episodes.

But the fairy-tale ending – did Innes know this would be his last book? Did he write brutal, brutal, brutal episodes and then – sick of his depiction of such a violent world, decide to turn his grim tale at last into a kind of melodramatic pantomime? Or did he just run out of puff?

What a long, strange, compelling and mysterious book.


Credit

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes was published by Macmillans in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Ceaușescu’s death

As a corollary to the 200 pages set amid the confusion of Ceaușescu’s overthrow in Romania – and a grim testimony to man’s inhumanity to man – there’s footage on YouTube of him and his formidable wife, Elena, being tried by a kangaroo court and then executed by a shambolic firing squad.

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 reveals an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land; features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute battle 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 lady journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm –


1946 Dead and Alive –
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 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 complicated 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 leads 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 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 cause he champions.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this time one convinced he can prove his eccentric theories about the origin of Man, Ice Age sea levels, the origin 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 the invitation to visit from a rancher’s daughter he’d met. 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 persistent 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 complex 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, all tied 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 old 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, the last surviving son of which 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, 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 gone aground 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 Lloyd’s 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 in time?
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 Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cartwright is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to rescue a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. It takes a lot of shenanigans, 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 a scam to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, diamonds like the ones the survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a story which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania during the chaotic days leading up to the overthrow of the communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller with car chases and shoot-outs – before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s boys adventure stories as Cartwright 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.

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