Monday, 26 October 2015

The Last Frontier – a thought-provoking spy-thriller

My rating: 9/10

I have already written about The Last Frontier in this post:
Alistair MacLean best novels
Please read it first.

Just like in The Golden Rendezvous, the main characters in The Last Frontier are very lively and memorable. But there is one big difference: in the first novel the main characters were people with non-fighting jobs (mostly seamen) and in this novel the main characters are involved in secret-agent/spying/underground activities. All of them.

The Last Frontier is a page turner. It’s basically a thriller about a secret agent on a mission behind the Iron Curtain. There is lots of action and lots of plot twists. The best parts are those based on confrontations, usually between two people. And all kinds of confrontations are great in this book: melee-fights, long-range shootouts, false-papers bluffs, interrogations of captured men, negotiations with enemies and even good-guys animosity about a girl. Don’t worry about the last one – it’s a tiny, almost non-existent side-topic, which is done very well nonetheless.

There is some humour in this book, but much less than in The Golden Rendezvous. Obviously the topic connected with a totalitarian system was not helpful in this case.

I must also point out that the places of action in The Last Frontier are much more varied than in The Night Without End (Greenland ice-sheet) and The Golden Rendezvous (a sea ship). I can’t name them, because it would be like giving spoilers, but believe me there are many memorable settings. Alistair MacLean was really an artist as far as short-but-good-and-climatic descriptions were concerned.

All the action takes places in Hungary, but two most important people in the Hungarian underground who are friends and who help Reynolds in his mission are a Ukrainian and a Pole. I have no idea if MacLean did it on purpose, but it was fitting perfectly to the message of the book. Poland and Ukraine have some very difficult history behind them, considering especially what happened in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia during World War II (Ukrainians massacred around 100 000 Poles, including women and children), but I believe that young generations should not be blamed for what their ancestors did. The message of the book is perfectly fitting to my beliefs. Or maybe my beliefs are based on the message of this book? I have read The Last Frontier for the first time when I was a teenager and it may have had some kind of influence on the way I look at such things.

Well, I have to write a little about negatives. First of all, some things were too easy for Reynolds (the secret agent from the West). I was especially surprised how easily he entered a heavily-guarded hotel to contact a particular person and how easily he left it. I was also disturbed by things like hotel-fire escapes connected to hotel-bathrooms, not only in the hotel I mentioned, but also in another one. Maybe such things were common in the 50s in the West, but I doubt they were common behind the Iron Curtain then, even in Budapest. Fortunately there were few such things in the book, but when they did happen they were very striking, at least to me.

The main problem with this book were numerous historical inaccuracies especially about the World War II. MacLean wrote about those times to give a background for one of the characters, but exaggerated some facts and simplified others. At first I wanted to correct all the inaccuracies but there were too many of them. Moreover it would only distract you from the positive message of the book and its overall great value. There was a seed of truth in everything MacLean wrote, but don’t take this book as a precise historical account. Concentrate on the enjoyable action and on the message.

Below there are some spoiler-free quotes to give you some idea about what message this book contains. The construction of the main plot makes it impossible to quote anything about it without spoilers, but the bulk of the book is fast and enjoyable action. The message however is true even today. The Last Frontier was not well received in 1959 – at the peak of the Cold War and I wonder how it would be judged today. The parts that I quote below are only a part of the overall message and they can be fully appreciated only after reading the whole book (with all the tragic history of the main characters from beyond the Iron Curtain and tough decisions they have to make while helping Reynolds). Enjoy!

     (…) Again, the emotional colourings which would normally accompany the thought of the potentialities of a successful mission or the tragic consequences of failure had no part in his racing mind as he lay there in the freezing snow, thinking, calculating, planning, assessing chances with a cold and remote detachment. ‘The job, the job, always the job on hand’ the colonel had repeated once, twice, a thousand times. ‘Success or failure in what you do may be desperately important to others, but it must never matter a damn to you. For you, Reynolds, consequences do not exist and must never be allowed to exist, and for two reasons: thinking about them upsets your balance and impairs your judgement – and every second you give up to thinking along these negative lines is always a second that should and must be used to working out how you’re going to achieve the job on hand.’

     ‘By all the gods!’ Szendro slapped his hand on his thigh. It’s magnificent, it’s really magnificent. My professional jealously is aroused. To have a Britisher or an American – British, I think, the American intonation is almost impossible to conceal – talk Hungarian with a Budapest accent as perfectly as you do is no small feat. But to have an Englishman talk English with a Budapest accent – that is superb!’

     ‘Their barbarities, their enslavement and their massacres don’t steam from world conquest?’ The fractional lift of Reynolds’ eyebrows was its own sceptical comment. ‘You tell me that?’
     ‘I do.’
     ‘Then from what in the world –?’
     ‘From fear, Mr Reynolds,’ Jansci interrupted. ‘From an almost terror-stricken fear that has no parallel among governments of modern times.
     ‘They are afraid because the ground lost in leadership is almost irrecoverable: Malenkov’s concessions of 1953, Kruschev’s famous de-Stalinization speech of 1956 and his forced decentralization of all industry were contrary to all the cherished ideas of Communist infallibility and centralized control, but they had to be done, in the interest of efficiency and production – and the people have smelled Freedom. And they are afraid because their Secret Police has slipped and slipped badly: Beria is dead, the NKVD in Russia are not nearly so feared as the AVO in this country, so the belief in the power of authority, of the inevitability of punishment, has slipped also.
     ‘These fears are of their own people. But these fears are nothing compared to their fears of the outside world. (…) They cannot recognize enemies, and they can only be safe, only feel safe, if all the peoples of the outside world are regarded as enemies. Especially the west. They fear the west and, from their point of view, they fear with every reason.
     ‘They are afraid of a western world that, they think, is unfriendly and hostile and just waiting its chance. How terrified would you be, Mr Reynolds if you were ringed, as Russia is ringed, with nuclear bomb bases in England and Europe and North Africa and the Middle East and Japan? How much more terrified would you be if, every time the world tensions increase, fleets of foreign bombers appear mysteriously on the far edge of your long-distance radar screens, if you know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that whenever such tensions arise there are, at any given moment of the day or night anywhere between 500 and 1,000 bombers of the American Strategic Air Command each with its hydrogen bomb, cruising high in the stratosphere, just waiting the signal to converge on Russia and destroy it. You have to have an awful lot of missiles, Mr Reynolds, and an almost supernatural confidence in them to forget those thousands hydrogen bombs already airborne – and it only requires five per cent of them to get through, as they inevitably would. Or how would you, in Britain, feel if Russia were pouring arms into Southern Ireland, or the Americans if a Russian aircraft carrier fleet armed with hydrogen bombs cruised indefinitely in the Gulf of Mexico? Try to imagine all that , Mr Reynolds, and you can perhaps begin to imagine – only begin, for the imagination can be only a shadow of reality – how the Russians feel.
     ‘Nor does their fear stop there. They are afraid of people who try to interpret everything in the limited light of their own particular culture, who believe that all people, the world over, are basically the same. A common assumption, and a stupid one and dangerous one. The cleavage between western and Slavonic minds and ways of thinking, the differences between their culture patterns are immense and alas, unrealized.
     ‘Finally, but perhaps above all, they are afraid of the penetration of western ideas into their own country. And that is why the satellite countries are so invaluable to them as a cordon sanitaire, an insulation against dangerous capitalist influences. And that’s why revolt in one of their satellites, as in this country two years last October, brings out all that is worst in the Russian leaders. They reacted with such incredible violence because they saw in this Budapest rising the culmination, the fulfilment as one and the same time of their three nightmare fears – that their entire satellite empire might go up in smoke and the cordon sanitaire vanish forever, that even a degree of success could have touched off a similar revolt in Russia and, most terrible of all, that a large-scale conflagration from the Baltic to the Black Sea would have given the Americans all the excuse or reason they ever needed to give the green light to the Strategic Air Command and carriers of the Sixth Fleet. I know, you know, that idea’s fantastic, but we are not dealing with facts, only with what the Russian leaders believe to be facts.’
    Jansci drained his glass and looked quizzically at Reynolds. ‘You begin to see now, I hope, why I was neither advocate of nor participant in the October rising. You begin to see, perhaps, why the revolt just had to be crushed, and the bigger and more serious the revolt the more terrible would have to be the repression, to preserve the cordon, to discourage other satellites or any of their own people who might be having similar ideas. You begin to see the hopelessness – the fore-doomed hopelessness – of it, the disastrous ill-judged futility of it all. The only effect it had was to strengthen Russia’s position among the other satellites, kill and maim countless thousands of Hungarians, destroy and damage over 20,000 houses, bring inflation and an almost mortal blow to the country’s economy. It should never have happened. Only, as I say, the anger of despair is always blind: noble anger can be magnificent thing, but annihilation has its – ah – drawbacks.’

     (…) ‘Sorry to have been so long, Jansci.’
     ‘Not at all,’ Jansci, assured him. ‘Mr Reynolds and I have had the most interesting discussion.’
     ‘About Russians, inevitably?’
     ‘And Mr Reynolds was all for conversion by annihilation?’
     ‘More or less.’ Jansci smiled. ‘It’s not so long since you felt the same way yourself.’
     ‘Age comes to us all.’ (…)

     ‘Then what the devil am I supposed to have done?’
     ‘Nothing. That’s the whole point. It’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do, it’s what you don’t show. You show no feelings, no emotions, no interest or concern in anything. Oh, yes, you’re interested enough in the job to be done, but the method, the how of it is a matter of absolute indifference, just as long as the job is done.
     ‘The Count says you’re only a machine, a mechanism designed to carry out a certain piece of work, but without any life or existence as an individual. He says you’re about the only person he knows who cannot be afraid, and he is afraid of people who cannot be afraid. Imagine! The Count afraid!’
     ‘Imagine,’ Reynolds murmured politely.
     ‘Jansci says the same. He says you’re neither moral nor immoral, just amoral, with certain conditioned pro-British, anti-Communist reactions that are valueless in themselves. He says whether you kill or not is decided not on a basis of wrong or right but simply of expediency. He says that you are the same as hundreds of young men he has met in the NKVD, the Waffen SS and other such organizations, men who obey blindly and kill blindly without ever asking themselves whether it is right or wrong. The only difference, my father says, is that you would never kill wantonly. But that is the only difference.’
     ‘I make friends wherever I go,’ Reynolds murmured.

    Jansci was wandering, not arguing, and he drifted from his own people to his youth amongst them. The transition seemed pointless, inconsequential at first, but Jansci was not an aimless wanderer, almost everything he did or said or thought was concerned with reinforcing and consolidating, both in himself and all his listeners, his almost obsessive faith in the oneness of humanity. When he spoke of his boyhood and young manhood in his own country, it could have been any person, of any creed, remembering with a fond nostalgia the happiest ours of a happy land. (…)

     ‘Mad?’ Reynolds swore. ‘He’s an inhuman fiend. Tell me, Jansci, is that the sort of man you call your brother? You still believe in the oneness of humanity?’
     ‘An inhuman fiend?’ Jansci murmured. ‘Very well, let us admit it. But at the same time let us not forget that inhumanity knows no frontiers, no frontiers in either time or space. It’s hardly the exclusive perquisite of Russians, you know. God only knows how many thousands of Hungarians have been executed or tortured till death came as a welcome release – by their fellow Hungarians. The Czech SSB – their secret police – were on a par with NKVD, and the Polish UB – composed almost entirely of Poles – were responsible for worse atrocities than the Russians had ever dreamed of.’
     ‘(…) And to all of that you might say: It is all one, it is all communism. And you would be right, my boy.
     ‘But what would you say if I reminded you of the cruelties of Falangist Spain, of Buchenwald and Belsen, of the gas chambers of Auschwitz, of the Japanese prison camps, the death railways of not so long ago? Again you would have the ready answer. All these things flourish under a totalitarian regime. But I said also that inhumanity has no frontiers in time. Go back a century or two. Go back to the days when the two great upholders of democracy were not quite as mature as they are today. Go back to the days when the British were building up their Empire, to some of the most ruthless colonization the world has ever seen, go back to the days when they were shipping slaves packed like sardines in a tin, across to America – and the Americans themselves were driving the Indian off the face of their continent. And what then my boy?’
     ‘(…) As to what I was saying, I fear that I talk too much and at the wrong time. You don’t feel even a little more kindly disposed towards our worthy commandant?’
     ‘Ah, well,’ Jansci sighed philosophically. ‘Understanding the reasons for an avalanche does not, I suppose, make one any more grateful for being pinned beneath it.’

     ‘It is essential, I think, to hammer home the idea of peace, the idea of disarmament, to convince the Russians, above all things, of our peaceful intentions. Peaceful intentions!’ Jansci laughed without mirth. ‘The British and the Americans filling the armouries of the nations of Western Europe with hydrogen bombs – what a way to demonstrate peaceful intentions, what a way rather to ensure Russia will never relax its grip on the satellites it no longer wants, what a way to drive the men of the Kremlin, scared men, I tell you, inexorably nearer the last thing in the world they want to do – sending the first intercontinental missile on its way: the last thing they want to do, because they know better than any that, though in the deep cellars in Moscow they may survive the retaliation that will surely come, they will never survive the vengeful fury of the crazed survivors of the holocaust that will just as surely engulf their own nation. To arm Europe is to provoke the Russians to the point of madness: whatever else we may not do, it is essential to avoid all provocation, to keep the door of negotiation and approach always open, no matter what the rebuffs may be.’
     ‘It is essential to watch ‘em like hawks, I would say,’ Reynolds commented.
     ‘Alas, I thought we had made him see the light,’ the Count mourned. ‘Perhaps we never will.’
     ‘Perhaps not,' Jansci agreed. ‘But he’s right, all the same. In the one hand the big gun, in the other the olive branch. But the safety-catch must always be on, and the hand of peace always a little in advance, and you must be endlessly patient – rashness, impatience could bring the world to catastrophe. Patience, endless patience. What matter a blow to your pride when the peace of the world is at stake?’
    Jansci paused and wearily shook his head. ‘The governments of the world may not be mad, but they are blind and their blindness is but one step removed from insanity. The desperate, most urgent need this world knows or will ever know, is the need for an effort without parallel in history to get to know ourselves and the other people of the world even as well as we know ourselves, and then we will see that the other man is just as we are, that right and virtue and truth belong to him as much as to us. We must think of people not as conglomerate mass, not conveniently, indiscriminately, as a faceless nation: we must always remember that a nation is made of millions of little human beings just like we are, and to talk about national sin and guilt and wickedness is to be wilfully blind, unjust and un-Christian; and while it is true that such a nation may go off the rails, it never goes off because it wants to, but because it couldn’t help it, because there was something in its past or in its environment that inescapably made it what it is to-day, just as some forgotten incidents, some influences that we can neither recall nor understand, has made each one of us what we are to-day.’

(Sunday, 8 June 2014)

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