It is May 1944 and Lieutenant Tom Freedman is about to drop into the darkness of the Yugoslavian night, to liberate the people from Nazi occupation, helped by a boot to his back. And out of the plane he goes.
Personally I wasn’t as aware of this part of WWII history, however I found it refreshing to be reading a story of the war that wasn’t based in London, Paris, or Berlin and the like.
Pears economy of language is evident from the start: “A vest, a shirt and two pullovers, scratchy and sweaty. An extra pair of thick woollen socks. They aren’t enough.” Through this description of his inadequate clothes the reader is keenly aware of Tom’s nervousness of this flight into a uncertain life ending war, and unknown country, without a wasted word. This skill carries through from start to finish, but sometimes there are flashes of a poet;
“Tom watches his feet plod, one after the other; a hundred times, a thousand times. Then something attracts his attention: a small brightness, on the ground. There. And again, a few yards further on, to the left a light on the ground. It is in water, a puddle at the side of the track.
Something clicks in Tom’s brain and he tips his head back. They sky is adazzle with bright white jewels. He has never in his life seen so many stars. It’s a wonder they can all fit in the sky. He could reach out and scoop a handful, let them trickle sparkling through his fingers.”
The first three characters we meet are Major Jack Farwell, 38. Lieutenant Tom Freedman, 26 and Corporal Sid Dixon, 22. The only thing that annoyed me about this book was the ease with which Pears sets a stereotypical cast of characters. Farwell is from an upper class family and only went to Oxford because it is a family tradition. Freedman on the other hand gained entry because of his intelligence and aptitude for languages and finally Dixon is from Devon. But Dixon has never seen the sea because it is too far away from his family farm, thus he never learnt how to swim. Although annoying I got over this pat description of Britain’s society as it becomes irrelevant as the story continues.
The three British (Allied) soldiers are joining a band of Partisan fighters. This group of rebels are fighting for the liberation of Slovenia (Yugoslavia) from German occupation. The Allies hope to secure the Yugoslav lands in case they needed to attack German troops from the south. In exchange for the protection and intelligence supplied by local partisan fighters the Allies supply weapons, explosives and food and the impression that they are helping the Slavs to win their fight. Their main aim is to blow the rail connections between the north and south of Slovenia, in particular at Ljubljana, a strategic pass through the Alps.
This book eloquently and sparingly describes the boredom of everyday war. Long marches through forested lands, usually at night, hunger (‘As they walk from the village the geese stretch their necks at them and hiss out hate. Sid asks Tom to order him not to run into their midst and grab one by its neck’), organising supply drops through radio communication and using the local population for food and accommodation. At first the local people’s aid and superficial welcomes strike Tom as ideal, the villagers aid the fight and the fighters gain a night’s sleep under a roof and food. But, as the days progress it becomes apparent that even if the householders don’t want them in their house the fighters will impose themselves, “forbid them to leave, take their food.”
Everywhere they go the shadow of the Black Hand stalks them. This is main physical threat to the people of region. If they are known to be aiding the partisan and Allied soldiers they are punished in the most brutal of ways.
All through this story Freedman questions this war and his part in it. Sexuality, religious faith and his place in the world become dominate thoughts. One aspect of the war that Freedman wasn’t expecting was his growing familiarities with unknown meats. It becomes a running joke at dinner for the Partisan’s to wonder what Freedman thinks of his rations. From rat to badger to fox Freedman expands his reference points for the taste of meat. And slowly he begins to identify the meat under scrutiny, much to his comrade’s amusement.
Although there is a prominent love story playing out in the long march north to Ljubljana I found this story to be more about comradeship and enduring the passage of time in an unknown and highly tense situation. Although Freedman is only in Slovenia because of the war there are points where as the reader you can see him absorbing the local culture, language and landscape as if he were on a grand touring holiday.
I received this book not knowing what to expect, having never read any of Pears earlier works. I was gently surprised, Pears is exceptional at drawing the picture of words. I will be hunting out his earlier works in the library in the coming weeks.
Any Cop?: For his economical yet beautiful prose I fully enjoyed this book. This is an intelligent and quietly absorbing story with a graceful writing style.
M.M. O’ Toole