Friday, 30 October 2015

Alistair MacLean – a master of non-stop action

Alistair MacLean was a Scottish author who was very well known, mostly for his war novels that were made into movies, for example The Guns of Navarone (written in 1957 and filmed in 1961) and Where Eagles Dare (written in 1967 and filmed in 1968). Personally I think his war novels were great, but WEAKER than his best books (best in my opinion). My favourites are The Golden Rendezvous (1962), Night Without End (1959), The Satan Bug (1962, originally released under the pseudonym Ian Stuart) and The Last Frontier (1959, released in the US under the title The Secret Ways).

I remember perfectly well the first time I have read a novel by Alistair MacLean. It was titled Night Without End and I stumbled upon it while I was searching through my parents’ library. The cover was black and white with a patch of yellow and red. It looked like this:

Both the cover and the title was a mystery to me, so I looked at the first page. And I was lost. The action started from the very first sentence and never let up. I was so hooked that I read HALF of the book in ONE sitting. Most of MacLean novels are like this. He is a master of non-stop action.

On the site I found this sentence: “MacLean's books are exceptional in one way at least: they have an absence of sex and most are short on romance because MacLean thought that such diversions merely serve to slow down the action.” Yes, it’s true. Moreover MacLean books are not brutal. There is some violence, but never graphic violence. Such approach makes his books readable for teenagers, even though they are clearly written for adults. It was perfect to me when I read Night Without End for the first time (I was no more than 15 years old) and it is still perfect to me today. I don’t like horrors and I hate graphic violence.

Many novels by Alistair MacLean are connected in some way with sea and ships or snow and ice, probably because MacLean served in Royal Navy from 1941 till 1946 and took part in 2 Arctic convoys. HMS Royalist (with MacLean onboard) also escorted carrier groups in Operation Tungsten (against German battleship Tirpitz in the far north of Norway) and operated in the Mediterranean Sea AND in the Far East. Quite a journey.

The main-plot ideas of MacLean novels are very interesting and EXTREMELY varied. The action can take place on a sea ship (The Golden Rendezvous for example), on top of the Greenland ice-sheet (Night Without End), in the top-secret laboratory dealing with deadly viruses (The Satan Bug), behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War (The Last Frontier) or many other unique places.

Alistair MacLean is a master of first-person narration. In his novels narrated this way the reader knows no more than the main character, which is great. The story-immersion in MacLean novels is perfect and complete. No other author can compare to MacLean in this regard. To be honest after reading his novels I have trouble reading “normal”, third-person narration books, even today.

Most of MacLean novels are a little dated by today’s standards, but it makes them even more interesting and fun to me. It’s great to read such “vintage” novels as a refuge from today’s crazy high-tech world.

I am going to review my favourite Alistair MacLean novels. I will do it from my memory – the way I remember them after all those years. The last time I read them it was between 10 and 15 years ago. I am going to re-read them in the next year (2014), for the first time in original (in English). I will update my reviews then.

PS. Comparing Alistair MacLean to Glen Cook I must say that they are quite similar. They value action above all else. Their best novels are written in first-person narration. They are both very good at sarcastic or self-depreciating humour. Personally I think that MacLean is slightly better than Glen Cook at ALL these aspects.
If only MacLean had written fantasy novels.

(Wednesday, 27 November 2013)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Alistair MacLean best novels

There are 4 books by Alistair MacLean that I remember as EXTREMELY enjoyable. I wanted to review them in detail from memory, but I remember only outlines of the plot. However I remember perfectly well their overall characteristics and the feeling they gave me. Below are mini-reviews of them. I will write more detailed separate reviews after I will re-read them the next year (2014).

What’s GREAT:

The Golden Rendezvous
1. Lots of good humour (mostly sarcastic).
2. Lots of action.
3. Lots of mystery and plot twists.
4. Pure first-person narration.
5. All action takes place on a sea-ship (kind of unusual).

Night Without End
1. Non-stop action.
2. Lots of mystery and plot twists.
3. Pure first-person narration.
4. All action takes place on the Greenland Ice-sheet (unique).
5. Narration gives the feeling of extreme cold and of exhaustion.

The Satan Bug
1. Lots of action.
2. Pure first-person narration.
3. Great humour, but not too much.
4. Plot about deadly viruses (something quite rare even today).
5. Narration gives the feeling of maddening fear of being infected with such a virus.

The Last Frontier
1. Lots of action and plot twists.
2. Third-person narration written ONLY from the point of view of the main character (it feels almost like first-person narration).
3. Plot about an undercover agent on a mission behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War (unique today, but dated).
4. Very insightful about normal people living on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and about a totalitarian, non-democratic system in general.
There are maybe 7 pages in total in the whole book about such things (spoken in dialogue, not said by the narrator), but they are extremely TRUE, even today. MacLean captured the sense of what was happening behind the Iron Curtain quite well, even though he was never there – it was the fault of the system rather than the fault of particular nations. You have to read the book yourself to understand exactly what I mean and what MacLean meant back in 1959. Thought-provoking stuff, really.
5. In a way the book is prophetic.
The book was inspired by the events surrounding the Hungarian Revolution of 1956:
MacLean properly recognised the heroism of Hungarian people, but he didn’t use the book to encourage a war against the Communist Bloc. On the contrary – he was aware that such a war would lead only to devastation and that there would be no winners. MacLean hinted that a more pacifistic approach is needed and that the rhetoric of the West should change a little. He did it by hinting what a steadily growing political tension can lead to. Because of this approach the book was not well received in 1959 – at the peak of the Cold War. Considering the peaceful fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and judging from such a HUGE time perspective Alistair MacLean seems almost like a prophet.

(Friday, 29 November 2013)

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Night Without End (by Alistair MacLean) re-read

My rating: 9/10

Night Without End is a unique book. All the action takes place on the Greenland ice-sheet. It’s really interesting to read about things that you would never realise without being there. MacLean clearly knew what he was writing about, probably because during World War II MacLean took part in two arctic convoys and he must had learned a lot there.

The action is non-stop, but it’s a different kind of action comparing to Glen Cook novels and I am not writing about the difference between fantasy and non-fantasy novels. MacLean was a great writer and he had
a knack for giving short, but quite precise descriptions of places and people, maintaining at the same time high suspense. The descriptions are richer than in Glen Cook novels, but this book is still a page-turner.

Night Without End is written in first-person narration and MacLean is
a master of first-person narration. The narration also gives very strong feeling of extreme cold and of extreme exhaustion.

I don’t rate Night Without End as a perfect book because the amount of exhaustion suffered by most of the characters is almost unbelievable.
I wrote almost because I don’t know what it is like to have a choice between starving to death or struggling on. I suspect that the survival instinct can be really powerful, but to what extent?

Below there are some quotes to give you an idea about MacLean’s narration and about the plot. The first quote is the very first sentence of the book. The last quote comes from page 18 – only page 18 because anything more would be a spoiler. Enjoy! (Please, remember that
70 degrees of frost in Fahrenheit units means -38 Fahrenheit degrees, which is equal to -39 Celsius degrees.)

     It was Jackstraw who heard it first – it was always Jackstraw, whose hearing was even match for his phenomenal eyesight, who heard things first.

     ‘Aeroplane,’ he announced casually.
     ‘Aeroplane!’ I propped myself up on an elbow and stared at him. ‘Jackstraw, you’ve been hitting the methylated spirits again.’
     ‘Indeed, no, Dr Mason.’ The blue eyes, so incongruously at variance with swarthy face and broad Eskimo cheekbones, crinkled into a smile: coffee was Jackstraw’s strongest tipple and we both knew it.

     Joss listened.
     ‘Engines sound OK to me.’
     ‘And to me. But engine failure is only one of a dozen possible reasons.’
     ‘But why circle here?’
     ‘How the devil should I know? Probably because he can see our lights – the only lights, at a guess, in 50,000 square miles. And if he has to put down, which God forbid, he stands his only chance of survival if he puts down near some human habitation.’

     ‘No need. Seventy degrees of frost will freeze blood and seal a wound quicker than any bandage. But bring the morphia kit. Any water in these two buckets?’
     ‘Full. But more ice than water.’
     ‘Put them on the stove – and don’t forget to turn out the stove and both the lights before you leave.’ Incongruously enough, we who could survive in the Arctic only by virtue of fire, feared it above all else.

     ‘My God!’ I looked at him. ‘Maybe they’ve crashed already.’
     Again the shake of the head.
     ‘Why not?’ I demanded. ‘On a night like this you wouldn’t hear a thing if they crashed half a mile downwind.’
     ‘I’d have felt it, Dr Mason.’
     I nodded slowly, said nothing. He was right, of course. The frozen surface of this frozen land transmitted vibration like a tuning-fork.
Last July, seventy miles inland, we had distinctly felt the vibration of
the ice-cap as an iceberg had broken off from glacier in a hanging valley and toppled into the fjord below. Maybe the pilot had lost his bearings, maybe he was flying in ever-widening circles trying to pick up our lights again, but at least there was hope yet.

     Like a fool, I immediately leapt to my feet to try to get a bearing on the vanishing plane and was literally blown head over heels by the tremendous slipstream from the four great propellers, slid helplessly across the frozen crust of the snow and fetched up on my back almost twenty feet from where I had been standing. Cursing, bruised and not
a little dazed, I got to my feet again, started off in the direction where
I could hear the dogs barking and howling in a paroxysm of fear and excitement, then stopped abruptly and stood quite still. The engines had died, all four of them had died in an instant, and that could mean only one thing: the airliner was about to touch down.

(Saturday, 4 January 2014)

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Golden Rendezvous (by Alistair MacLean) – pure fun

My rating: 9/10

This was the fourth, or maybe fifth(?), time I have read The Golden Rendezvous. And it was as great as ever. Lots of good humour. Lots of action. Lots of mystery. Lots of great characters. Pure fun.

However, there are some things that are a little unbelievable and this is why my rating is not perfect but “only” very good. On the other hand it’s a very strong 9/10 rating, close to perfect 10/10, and those little things are in fact a very low price for all the entertainment this book delivers.

Below are my favourite, spoiler-free quotes. There are a lot of them, but they only show a tip of an iceberg of great ideas and motives in this novel. Enjoy!

    I was unhappy. The crew were unhappy. The passengers were unhappy. Captain Bullen was unhappy and this last made me doubly unhappy because when things went wrong with Captain Bullen he invariably took it out on his chief officer. I was his chief officer.

     “Good afternoon, Mr. First Officer,” she said sweetly. She had a soft musical voice with hardly a hint of superiority or condescension when talking to the lower orders like myself, “We’ve been wondering where you were. You are not usually an absentee at aperitif time.”
     “I know, Miss Beresford. I’m sorry.” What she said was true enough: what she didn’t know was that I turned up for aperitifs with the passengers more or less at the point of a gun. Standing company orders stated that it was as much part of the ship’s officers’ duties to entertain the passengers as to sail the ship, and as Captain Bullen loathed all passengers with a fierce and total loathing he saw to it that most of the entertaining fell to me. (…)

     (…), I caught sight of Captain Bullen perched on top of the companionway leading down from the main deck. “Glowering” would probably be the most apt term to describe the expression on his face. As he came down the companionway and passed Miss Beresford he made a heroic effort to twist his features into a semblance of a smile and managed to hold it for all of two seconds until he had passed her by, then got back to his glowering again. For a man who is dressed in gleaming whites from top to toe to give the impression of a black approaching thundercloud is no small feat, but Captain Bullen managed it without any trouble. He was a big man, six feet two and very heavily built, with sandy hair and eyebrows, a smooth red face that no amount of sun could ever tan and a clear blue eye that no amount of whiskey could ever dim. He looked at the quayside, the hold and then at me, all with the same impartial disfavour.
     “Well, Mister,” he said heavily. “How’s it going? Miss Beresford giving you a hand, eh?” When he was in a bad mood, it was invariably “Mister”: in a neutral mood, it was “First”: and when in a good mood – which, to be fair, was most of the time – it was always “Johnny-me-boy”. But today it was “Mister”. I took my guard accordingly and ignored the implied reproof of time-wasting. He would be gruffly apologetic the next day. He always was.

     “Petty larceny on the part of the individual is theft,” Captain Bullen said morosely. “When governments engage in grand larceny, it’s economics.”

    And in Kingston the blow had fallen. We had no sooner arrived than the harbour authorities had come on board requesting that a search party from the American destroyer lying almost alongside be allowed to examine the Campari. The search party, about forty of them, were already lined up on the deck of the destroyer.
    They were still there four hours later. Captain Bullen, in a few well-chosen words that carried far and clear over the sunlit waters of Kingston harbour, had told the authorities that if the United States Navy proposed, in broad daylight, to board a British Mercantile Marin vessel in a British harbour, then they were welcome to try. They were also welcome, he had added, to suffer, apart from injuries and the loss of blood they would incur in the process, the very heavy penalties which would be imposed by an international court of maritime law arising from charges ranging from assault, through piracy to an act of war: which maritime court, Captain Bullen had added pointedly, had its seat not in Washington D.C., but in The Hague, Holland.
    This stopped them cold. The authorities withdraw to consult with the Americans. Coded cables, as we learnt later, were exchanged with Washington and London. Captain Bullen remained adamant. Our passengers, 90 per cent. of them Americans, gave him their enthusiastic support. (…)

    It had started off simply enough in the early fifties with an earlier Blue Mail vessel, the s.s. Brandywine. (For some strange whimsy, explicable only on a psycho-analysts’ couch, Lord Dexter himself a rabid teetotaller, had elected to name his various ships after divers wines and other spirituous liquors.) The Brandywine had been one of the two Blue Mail vessels engaged on a regular run between New York and various British possessions in the West Indies, and Lord Dexter, eyeing the luxury cruise liners which plied regularly between New York and the Caribbean and seeing no good reason why he shouldn’t elbow his way into this lucrative dollar-earning market, had some extra cabins fitted on the Brandywine and advertised them in a few select American newspapers and magazines, making it quite plain that he was interested only in Top People. Among attractions offered had been a complete absence of bands, dances, concerts, fancy-dress balls, swimming pools, tombola, deck games, sight-seeing and parties – only a genius could have made such desirable and splendidly resounding virtues out of things he didn’t have anyway. (…)
    The initial success of the scheme was fantastic. In stock exchange parlance, the issue was oversubscribed a hundred times. This was intolerable Lord Dexter; (…). He doubled his prices. It made no difference. He trebled them and in the process made the gratifying discovery that there were many people in the world who would pay literally almost anything not only to be different and exclusive but to be known to be different and exclusive. (…)

    He grunted and said: “Nothing I can do to help?” Half-question, half-statement.
     “No, sir.” The sight of the captain searching about the upper deck or peering under lifeboat covers would do nothing to increase the passengers’ confidence in the Campari.
     “Right then, Mister. If you want me, I’ll be in the telegraph lounge. I’ll try to keep the passengers out of your hair while you’re getting on with it.” That showed he was worried all right, and badly worried: he’d just as soon have gone into a cage full of Bengal tigers as mingle socially with the passengers.

     (…) Rusty, our youngest apprentice, went aft to work his way for’ard, accompanied by Miss Beresford, who had probably guessed, and rightly, that I was in no mood for her company. But Rusty was. He always was. Nothing that Susan Beresford said to or about him made the slightest difference to him. He was her slave and didn’t care who knew it. If she’d asked him to jump down the funnel, just for her sake, he’d have considered it an honour. I could just imagine him searching about the upper decks with Susan Beresford by his side, his face the same colour as his flaming shock of hair.

    Bullen looked at me without expression, looked at his drink, evidently decided that he preferred his drink to me – or the ill news I brought with me – and knocked down back the contents in a couple of gulps.

    When I awoke, it was twenty minutes to one. Not that I was immediately aware of the time when I awoke: I wasn’t immediately and clearly aware of anything. It’s difficult to be aware of anything when your head is being squeezed between the jaws of a giant vice and your eyes have gone blind, to be aware of anything, that is, except the vice and the blindness. (…)
     “Take it easy, sir. You just take it easy.” The man with the sponge must have a long arm, he was at least two miles away, but I recognised the voice for all that. Archie MacDonald. “Don’t you try moving now. Just you wait a bit. You’ll be all right, sir.”
     “Archie?” We were a real disembodied pair, I thought fuzzily. I was at least a couple of miles away, too. I only hoped we were a couple of miles away in the same direction. (…)

    I retired defeated to the bridge and took over from Jamison. Almost an hour later elapsed before another defeated man came to the bridge: Captain Bullen. He didn’t have to tell me he was defeated: it was written on him, in the sill, troubled face, the slight sag of the broad shoulders. And mute headshake from me told him all he needed to know. I made a mental note, in the not unlikely event of Lord Dexter turfing us both out of the Blue Mail, to turn down any suggestions by Captain Bullen that we should go into a detective agency together: there might be faster ways of starving, perhaps, but none more completely certain.

     “I’ll tell you when I come back.”
     “If you come back.” He went to his dispensary, came back with hypodermic and injected some pale fluid. “Against all my instincts, this. It’ll ease the pain, no doubt about that, but it will also permit you to overstrain your leg and cause permanent damage.”
     “Not half as permanent as being dead.”

    The gun lifted a trifle. The direct no-nonsense type, he didn’t believe in fancy speeches. Shoot them and be done with it. (…) My bad leg was under me and I couldn’t get up. I stared into the beam of light, into the black muzzle of the gun. I stopped breathing and tensed myself. Tensing yourself against a .38 fired from a distance of five feet is a great help but I wasn’t feeling very logical at the moment.

(Sunday, 13 April 2014)

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)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Satan Bug (by Alistair MacLean)

My rating: 8/10

I thought that my rating would be 9/10, but there are so many unbelievable things that I can't rate it any higher than 8/10. In this novel MacLean tries to explain some strange things later in the novel (more or less in a form of plot-twists), but some things made little sense to me or were tooo improbable.

What's especially annoying is the fact that the main character in the second half of the novel suffers from broken ribs and he still manages to do things that a healthy person would have trouble doing. MacLean reminds the reader about these broken ribs from time to time, but he himself forgets about them at other moments.

Overall the book is very gripping - about deadly viruses missing from a top secret microbiological research complex. The action starts on page 2 and lasts till the very end of the book.

The first 80 and the last 100 pages are superb with some memorable settings. Three scenes from the last part of the book has been imprinted in my memory and I remembered them VERY well, which is surprising, as I read this book for the last time around 15 years ago.

The middle 200 pages describe a kind of detective investigation carried out by the main character parallel to an official one. This part is done pretty well and there are numerous plot twists, but the action is a little slower than usual in MacLean's novels. But the first and the last part of the book make up for that.

Here are some spoiler-free quotes:

    '(…) You are not the first person to comment bitterly on the fact that this establishment, referred to in Parliamentary estimates as the Mordon Health Centre, is controlled exclusively by the War Office. You knew, of course, that Mordon is concerned mainly with the invention and production of microbiological organisms for use in war – but you are one of the few who know just how ghastly and terrifying are the weapons that have been perfected there, that armed with those weapons a few planes could utterly destroy all life in any country in the space of a few hours. (…)'

    Ferguson was back in ten minutes, fighting to restrain a wolf-like animal that lunged out madly at anyone who came near him. Rollo had a muzzle on but even that didn't make me feel too confident. I didn't need any persuasion to accept the sergeant's word that the dog was a killer.

    The gas-suit was tight and constricting, the closed circuit breathing apparatus cut into the back of my neck and the high concentration of oxygen made my mouth dry. Or maybe my mouth was dry anyway. Three cigarettes in the past twenty minutes – a normal day's quota for me, I preferred to take my slow poisoning in the form of a pipe – wouldn't have helped any either. I tried to think of one compelling reason why I shouldn't go through that door, but that didn't help either, there were so many compelling reasons that I couldn't pick and choose between them, so I didn't even bother trying. I made a last careful check of suit, mask and oxygen cylinders, but I was only kidding myself, this was about my fifth last careful check. Besides, they were all watching me. I had my pride. I started spelling out the combination on the heavy steel door.

    No need to switch on any lights – the laboratory was already brilliantly illuminated by shadowless neon lighting. Whoever had broken into that lab had either figured that the Government was a big enough firm to stand the waste of electricity or he'd had left in such tearing hurry that he'd had no time to think of lights.
    I'd no time to think of lights either. Nor had I the inclination. My sole and over-riding concern was with the immediate welfare of the tiny hamster inside the cage I was carrying.
    I placed the cage on the nearest bench, whipped off the cover and stared at the little animal. No bound man seated on a powder keg ever watched the last few minutes of sputtering fuse with half the mesmerised fascination, the totally-exclusive concentration with which I stared at that hamster. The starving cat with up-raised paw by the mouse-hole, the mongoose waiting for the king-cobra to strike, the ruined gambler watching the last roll of the dice – compared to me, they were asleep on the job. If ever the human eye had the power of transfixion, that hamster should have been skewered alive.
    Fifteen seconds, Gregori had said. Fifteen seconds only and if the deadly Satan Bug virus was present in the atmosphere of that lab the hamster would react. I counted of the seconds, each second a bell tolling toward eternity, and at exactly fifteen seconds the hamster twitched violently. Violently, but nothing compared to the way my heart behaved, a double somersault that seemed to take up all the space inside the chest wall, before settling down to an abnormally slow heavy thudding that seemed to shake my body with its every beat. Inside the rubber gloves the palms of my hands turned wet, ice-cold. My mouth was dry as last year's ashes.

(Sunday, 31 August 2014)

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Lawrence of Arabia (by Alistair MacLean)

My rating: 10/10

Lawrence of Arabia is a unique history book. Alistair MacLean was a master of fictional, fast-paced and highly-entertaining novels, but this book is an exception. An exception only to “fictional” – the book is fast-paced and highly-entertaining, as usual.

The book is about Thomas Edward Lawrence, know as Lawrence of Arabia, and it focuses on his achievements during the Arab Revolt (1916-1918) that took place during World War I. The Great War (WWI) was so huge and was fought on so many fronts that it is impossible to learn everything about it. Obviously every nation focuses on its own part in this war and learns about other parts only when it is crucial to understand the main phases of the war. I myself had no idea that so much fighting took place in Middle East, not to mention the fact that WWI lead to the end of the Ottoman Empire that had spanned over huge territories before that.

What’s good:
1. The book points out only the crucial moments, without burying the reader with too much info. For example when I read about the Arab Revolt on the Wikipedia I get bored and overwhelmed by the amount of disjointed info only after a few paragraphs. On the other hand I have not get bored even once while reading Maclean’s book and it seemed more clear to me.
2. There is some interesting info about Lawrence’s early life that explain how he became such a unique person, considering especially that he was respected for his stamina and his ability to survive in the desert even by the Bedouins. The Wikipedia is severely lacking in this regard while describing Lawrence.
3. There is nothing about Lawrence’s parents nor about some controversial claims about Lawrence’s personal life. Again, the Wikipedia dwells on those topics as if they were the most important things in the world. MacLean was wise enough to skip all those irrelevant or mostly speculative “facts” altogether.
4. The book in a perfect way explains what are the methods and what is the point of guerrilla warfare. This is in fact the longest and the best part of the book.
5. There are 4 (FOUR !!!) different maps of the Middle East showing in different scales the places of action. I kept consulting with these maps throughout the book. Almost every town or village that is mentioned in the book is shown on one of these maps. Magnificent!
6. There are other unique people described in the book, not only Lawrence.
7. The book shows what great courage Lawrence and Arabs demonstrated during the Revolt. It also shows how lucky they have been at some times. Lawrence himself was wounded many times and he was at the mercy of the enemies twice, but they didn’t recognise him.
8. There are some surprising facts about the weather (sometimes snowy) in the Middle East and the part it took in some events of the Arab Revolt.
9. The book describes that Lawrence was ahead of his time as far as military strategy was concerned.
10. MacLean ends the book with a good political summary of what happened after the end of World War I (after 1918), explaining at the same time why Arabs were not happy. Lawrence himself was devastated at first, but there was some kind of happy end for him. Winston Churchill, who became the British Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921, persuaded Lawrence to come back as an advisor and together they worked out a solution how to repair the injury done to the Arabs. Lawrence himself was one of the most influential delegates at the Cairo Conference in 1921 and resigned from the Colonial Office only on July 4, 1922, when he felt that his work was done.
11. The book can be read by teenagers. Obviously every war is terrible, but there is no graphic violence in this book.
12. Some scenes are written like a pure novel and Maclean’s masterful narration is at his best.

What’s bad:
1. The book is short. It’s 159 pages long, but the font is bigger than usual and the lines are more apart from each other than usual. But it’s not really an issue – a much longer book would be simply boring.
2. Sometimes I wondered if everything was really true, because it seems that Lawrence was personally involved in a huge number of dangerous missions and expeditions. But it makes the book so exciting.

Lawrence of Arabia is a page-turner, but a very unusual one. It’s a true story about heroism and about a cunning military campaign against a much more numerous and powerful enemy. The fact that the book is as much about Arabs as it is about Lawrence didn’t really bothered me. People from every nation and from every religion can be heroic and they deserve a proper praise. This book suited my taste perfectly.

Here are some quotes to give you idea what the narration is like in this book:

     These activities gave him a strength and a stamina far above the ordinary. And he made use of all his extended excursions to discipline himself to exist for long periods without food, drink or sleep. Why, we do not know. It was almost as if he already knew what his destiny was to be and was already training himself to meet it. In the years to come, in his far-flung travels in the Arabian desert, this endurance and rare ability to go for long periods without food, rest or sleep were to prove invaluable to Lawrence.

     But another two days later, after a long camel ride into the interior to the town of Hamra, Lawrence found his man at last – the Emir Feisal ibn Hussein, third son of the Sherif of Mecca.
     Lawrence has left an account of his first meeting with Feisal and the immediate impression Feisal made upon him. “I felt at first glance,” Lawrence says, “that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek – the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory. (…)”
     No question but that Feisal made an immediate and great impact on Lawrence. It would have been surprising had he not. Thirty-one years old, graceful and regal in appearance, quick and vigorous in all his actions, clever, hot-tempered, impatient, very proud, he was idolized by the fierce Bedouin tribesmen he led. For Lawrence he was the ideal and heavenly-sent choice for a commander-in-chief who would lead his people to freedom.

     It was a brilliant idea, completely at odds with the accepted military thinking of the time – which said, in effect, that any mass of the enemy should be destroyed wherever found. And the idea was to have all the splendid success it so richly deserved. All through the war, Turkish garrisons and repair gangs struggled desperately to keep the Hejaz railroad open. And in that way a mere handful of Bedouins succeeded in tying down over 30,000 Turkish troops, who were as good as lost to their commander in chief when it came to fighting the main campaign against the British.

     There were three further difficulties.
The first was that Feisal’s troops were reluctant to venture so far from home among possibly hostile tribes. Lawrence, however, knew he could rely on Feisal to bring his army north once the port was taken.
     The second difficulty was that, since tribes would have to be recruited for the attack in the north, there would have to be a base for operations. The only feasible base in this barren and waterless desert was the Wadi Sirhan, a 200-mile string of oases between Azrak on the Syrian border and Jauf. But before they could use the water holes as a base, permission would have to be obtained from the powerful Emir of Ruwalla.
     The third difficulty was that the permission could be obtained and the tribes recruited by one man and one man only. This was the far-famed Auda, the great warrior chief of the clan of the Howietat Bedouin.
     The first requirement, obviously, was to have Auda on the spot. He was asked to come and confer with Feisal and Lawrence, and come he did, without any loss of time. Once he heard that there was the prospect of a fight, it would doubtless have been impossible to stop him.
     Sheik Auda abu Tayi was a living legend. No longer a young man – ha was about fifty – Auda was huge, gaunt and swarthy. (…) He was beyond all doubt the greatest desert fighter of his time – and very possibly of all time. From Kurdistan to the Arabian Sea his fame was exceeded only by the universal fear in which he was held. Even kings walked softly when Auda abu Tayi passed by.

     In the middle of the day, when it was so intolerably hot that most of the Arabs could fire only very occasionally, Auda came to Lawrence. He pointed to his own still rapidly firing clansmen and asked proudly: “What think ye of the Howietat now?”
     “Indeed,” Lawrence replied, “they shoot a lot and hit a little.”
     Auda stared at him, then ripped off his headcloth in berserk rage and dashed it to the ground. Shouting at Lawrence, “Get your camel if you want to see the old man’s work,” he rushed away shouting hoarsely for his tribesmen to follow him. Before Lawrence could stop him Auda was leading fifty horsemen in a breakneck suicidal downhill charge against the enemy.
     There was nothing for the horrified Lawrence and Nasir to do but mount their camels, gather 400 tribesmen and charge after him. (…)
     When he recovered consciousness, the battle was over. The Arabs, mad for revenge, had killed 300 Turks and taken 150 more as prisoners – in return for the loss of exactly two of their own men. It was a miracle.
     The spectacle of the triumphant Sheik Auda, when he came to ask Lawrence what he thought of his Howietat tribesmen now, was even more incredible. One bullet had smashed his treasured field glasses, another had pierced his pistol holster, others had reduced his sword scabbard to mangled strips of leather. Six more had passed through his clothing, and his horse had been shot dead under him. But Auda himself was completely unharmed. Even for a man supposed to bear the charmed life Auda did, it was indeed a miracle. Auda himself gave the entire credit for his survival to a copy of the Koran, which he always carried with him.

     It is rather uncertain what impression Allenby and Lawrence, two utterly different men, made on each other. The one was big, burly, clad in the immaculate and much-decorated uniform of an army general. The other was small, deeply sunburned, wasted away from hardship and hunger, dressed in flowing Arab robes and bare on foot. Accounts of their meeting vary. But evidently both men immediately understood each other as soldiers. They found that their points of view on campaign strategy and tactics to be employed in campaigns were very similar indeed. Allenby, though fresh from the Western Front, was no Western Front general. Indeed, he had strongly expressed his distaste for the static mass killing of trench warfare and the immovably fixed and hidebound mentality of the generals who directed this warfare. And it may well have been because of this that he was sent out to Egypt, where he could no longer annoy his commander in chief.

     The conditions in the high hills to the southeast of the Dead Sea were more what one might have expected to find in Greenland or Siberia than in a semitropical country like Arabia. The cold was truly intense. Storms of sleet and hail swept over the bare, rugged countryside. These were followed by ice winds and howling blizzards that piled up great drifts of snow and made movement almost hopeless.
     (…) Maulud lost no less than half of the entire force with which he was besieging Maan. The men died not from Turkish bullets but simply because they froze to death. Maulud had begged the British in Cairo for thick winter clothing for his troops in place of the thin summer drill they wore. But the quartermaster in charge of stores there had refused on the grounds that the Arabs were fighting in a tropical country!

     The township of Tafas, the village over which Tallal had ruled so long, was no longer a village. It was a blackened, smoking grave, inhabited only by the dead. The dead lay everywhere – old men, women, children, even the smallest babies, all ruthlessly massacred by the Turks.
     Tallal, Lawrence relates, gave a moan like a hurt animal. Then he rode off to higher ground and remained there for some moments, shivering violently and staring after the retreating Turks. Lawrence moved to speak to him, but Auda caught his rein and stopped him. In one blow, in one moment, Tallal had lost every person in the world who mattered to him. And the older Auda, wiser in this matter than Lawrence, realized that Tallal now had nothing to live for.
     Slowly Tallal drew his headcloth about his face. Then he suddenly thrust his spurs into the sides of his horse and galloped headlong straight into the main body of the enemy.
     Both sides stopped shooting. Lawrence and his men remained motionless as stones while Tallal galloped madly toward the Turks. The drumming of his horse’s hoofbeats sounded unnaturally loud in the strange and sudden silence Then he stood high in the saddle and shouted out, “Tallal, Tallal,” twice in a great voice. “Instantly,” Lawrence recounts, “their rifles and machineguns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points.”
     “God give him mercy,” Auda said softly. “We will take his price.”
     And Auda, the greatest and most feared desert fighter of his time, was as good as his word. The outnumbered Arabs, driven into a madness of rage and hate by the grim horror of Tafas, fell upon the Turks like a pack of starving wolves. Brilliantly led by Auda who remained ice-cold in his terrible anger, they drove the Turkish column into wild country. There they split them up and began to destroy them piecemeal. (…)

(Tuesday, 1 July 2014)