Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Books I Read In January

'Storm of Steel' by Ernst Jünger
This is a memoir of a German infantry officer who fought on the Western Front during the First World War. He later became a novelist and lived to be 102. Before I get into the book itself I must talk about the intrusive translator, Michael Hofmann. This English translation was produced in 2003. The preceding English translation had been done by Basil Creighton in 1929. Now, in this very smug introduction, Hofmann goes on at length about how much better his translation of Jünger's work is than Creighton. Hofmann has extensive experience of translation from German into English. However, his knowledge of the First World War seems minimal. He does not seem to have read any of the books from the bibliography he provides at the introduction. As a result, throughout, he makes errors which really jump out at anyone at all familiar with the war. Given how merciless Hofmann is with Creighton, I think it is only fair to show up the range of errors that Hofmann makes.

For a start, he calls roundels on aircraft 'rosettes' giving a carnival-like impression of them. He talks about the RAF flying aeroplanes in 1916, two years before it was even created. He confuses 'saps' with communication trenches early on in the book, causing confusion for the reader; though he seems to resolve that error later on. Perhaps Hofmann's arrogance dissuaded the editor from pulling up such inconsistencies. He seems to be confused about Jünger's rank when he becomes an officer. He calls him an Ensign, an officer rank, but then says he is only an NCO, presumably because Fähnrich was an NCO rank. It should have been translated into English as something different than 'Ensign'. He may also be mixing it up with Feldwebelleutnant [Lieutenant-Sergeant] which until 1917 was the most junior 2nd Lieutenant, but an uncommissioned officer who ate in the NCOs' mess rather than the officer's mess. Hofmann's lack of care and absence of explanation of military aspects, makes it confusing where Jünger stands at that stage of the story, given that he started the war as a Private but was later commissioned, became commanded a Company and ended the war as a Captain.

Hofmann also seems confused on how to translate what is usually deemed to be for English-reading audiences, 2nd Lieutenant, in German it is Leutnant and (1st) Lieutenant - Oberleutnant. Given his difficulty with the German ranks it might have been better to leave them in German. I do not know really what he means when he gives a soldier the rank 'Territorial'. In other parts he uses 'Fusilier' for Private which does fit with the German designations for Privates in rifle units. By 'Territorial' I can think he means that the man had been a Reservist before the war so equating it a little to the British Territorial Army; maybe he means the man was from a Landwehr unit. However, again his translation adds confusion rather than clarity. As I say, simply going through some of the history books he lists could have avoided these basic mistakes.

Hofmann uses the term 'knife rest' translated directly from the German, but does not really make clear that it is a type of obstacle put up in trenches. In English he might have been better off using cheval de friese or 'Spanish rider' or better still putting in one of his footnotes which he reserves for literary references which he feels he is a master of. He also speaks of Jünger later putting one his helmets that had been shot right through as a 'pendant' to the helmet he had got from an Indian lieutenant colonel. This is simply bad translation. The original German was presumably Anhängsel, perhaps Anhänger, both of which Hofmann should know can be translated as 'pendant' but in this case more appropriately also as 'an addition' which makes much more sense than a full-sized helmet trying to act as a pendant to another.

Right, putting aside the intrusions of the translator, I can say that this book deserves the acclaim it has received. It is very straight forward. Jünger just talks about what he did in the war from being a Private in December 1914 to being invalided out in around July 1918 as a Captain. He says very, very little about periods outside that stretch, aside from noting people who wrote to him after the war. He speaks a little about his brother but he was in the same regiment anyway and their paths crossed. It is like a journal, but it moves at pace and to a great degree helps you get through the incessant casualties. Jünger himself ended up with twenty scars from a range of wounds, received the Iron Cross, 1st Class and other decorations. However, as he makes clear throughout, survival was largely about luck. He is very adept at drawing quick portraits of the men he encountered and their fates.

For English-speaking readers this book gives a different account to the usual ones we encounter of muddy trenches in Flanders. Jünger was constantly being moved around the Western Front and while he generally fought against the British he also faced French forces. He was often in chalky or clay terrain such as in the Champagne region. He is very good not just on the complexities of the trench systems in which people were often getting lost, but the villages and towns behind the front. We see a different side with houses wrecked by shelling but fruit trees continuing to grow. The book certainly makes clear how all pervasive artillery fire was and what damage it caused. It also shows repeatedly that steel helmets did little to guard against bullets through the head, which is a fatal wound he keeps speaking about.

The book shows how the war developed in technology. By the end, aeroplanes and tanks are far more common. The Germans are increasingly fighting troops from across the British Empire. Throughout, though it shows how much better equipped and supplied the Entente forces were compared to the Germans. Even in the early years, the British and French have far more munitions and can keep up barrages and assaults for longer. With the move to the stormtrooper approach in 1918 which Jünger was involved with, the Germans often end up using British hand grenades and when they break into British dugouts they are amazed at the quantity and quality of food and clothing supplies compared to what they had been reduced to back on their side. Overall this is a very crisp, engaging account of the war on the Western Front from the German perspective and I look forward to the next translation, the one in which the translator actually reads some war history first so can avoid silly errors throughout.

'A Small Death in Lisbon' by Robert Wilson
This book first published in 1999 is largely set in Portugal in the 1990s. However, despite the author's stated aversion (on his website) to dual storylines this is exactly he does, featuring the lives of some men from 1941 up to the 1990s. Wilson says he wanted: 'to create the essential enigma in the readers' [sic] mind to which they had to have the answer: What the hell does the murder of fifteen year old girl in modern day Lisbon have to do with the wolfram wars of World War Two?' He does this far too far and throughout you feel as if he has spliced together two completely different books, one a war novel and one a crime novel. The fact that the crime novel is written in the first person of Zé Coelho adds the jump between the two facets. Furthermore Wilson does not move between the two timelines neatly, sometimes spending far longer on one than the other.

A further problem is that the 'hero' of the war novel, Klaus Felsen is a member of the SS sent to wartime Portugal to secure supplies of wolfram (tungsten) for armour-piercing shells. Despite showing Felsen having a girlfriend who is manipulated by the SS then sent to die in a concentration camp, he is a very unsympathetic character, torturing British agents, betraying and shooting his collaborators and raping the wife of a Portuguese man he is working with. Then he disappears for a large chunk of the book as he is in prison and his descendant takes over the story until the end. It is difficult to engage with such a character and it jars when we go back to Coelho, who though he sleeps with a potential witness, is more clearly a 'good' man. It would have been far better to have dropped the historic timeline and instead have Coelho uncover the past through his investigations.

Wilson tries to jam far too much into this book. He has Nazis running around between wartime Germany, Switzerland and Portugal and then running a bank in the post-war period, as well as murders in a contemporary setting. Yet, this is still not enough, he has to get in Portugal's 1974 revolution as well. It feels as if he believed at the time that he had only one chance to write about modern Portugal so had to get absolutely every aspect in.

Another problem with the book is that there is far too much sex. Felsen is a sex addict working his way through prostitutes and almost any other woman who crosses his path. Even the widower Coehlo has to have sex with a witness, on more than one occasion, despite the damage to his case. The novel paints a very grim picture of Portuguese girls as nymphomaniacs and part-time prostitutes. Sex is a factor for the murder, but in many ways Wilson undermines its impact by having so much of it in the book, that when involved with the crime its impact is severely reduced.

This novel was Wilson's fifth but seems plagued with the kind of worries that a debut author would fall prey too. Perhaps by this time he was not reined in by an editor to the extent he would have done before. A crime novel, referencing the past, but not jumping back to it and forward from it, would have been far better. He is good at characters, even when they are unsympathetic and he is good at being gritty but everything is undermined by his sex obsession and the thrusting together of two almost unrelated novels in a single volume.

P.P. Wilson's novel also features what appears to be a fictional pistol, the Walther P48. The numbers for pistols have tended to reflect the year in which they were adopted, so someone carrying a '48 gun in 1941 would be odd. I think he meant the Walther P38 which was a genuine pistol used by wartime German forces and in use by West Germany until 1963. Wilson is not the only one to make this mistake; the fictional Walther P48 apparently appears in 'The Domination' (1998) by S.M. Stirling, 'Die Orangen der Konstantina Konstantinos' (2009) by Roland Hoja and 'Hollywood Buzz' (2011) by Margit Liesche. I am not sure where these authors got the idea for a P48 from, maybe readers of this post can tell me if I have missed something, as I can find no trace of it being a real pistol. Despite the amount of effort Wilson went into with background research, I wonder if it was a typographical error by Stirling which has subsequently accreted credibility.

'Raising Steam' by Terry Pratchett
This is the last of the 'mainstream' Discworld novels that Pratchett wrote, i.e. not featuring Tiffany Aching. I read one reviewer who felt that it signalled the end of Discworld as she had known it anyway as magic was being superseded by technology, even more than had been the case with the clacks communication system of 'Going Postal' (2004). To me it seems to mark another Discworld book which is more worthy than humorous and especially focused on racial tolerance. That phase began at least with 'Thud!' (2005), if not 'Going Postal' in relation to golems, and saw the growing acceptance of different species into mainstream Discworld society, notably the goblins. In 'Raising Steam' there are hints he would have explored the integration of gnomes who appear near the end. This is a worthwhile focus for an author especially one who wrote largely for children, but it did mean that the later books really lacked humour, certainly the laugh-out-loud humour of the late 20th century ones.

As might be surmised, the book is about the introduction of steam trains (and at the end, bicycles - I do wonder if among the 10 books on his hard drive destroyed after his death Pratchett had a story of the Tour de Quirm bicycle race) to Discworld. It relies heavily on stereotypes both of the French (Quirm) and of northern English engineers. It does communicate the thrill of engaging with steam engines that Pratchett seems to have shared himself. However, it keeps running up against the lessons around tolerance of people and the loss of the ability to derive genuine humour from situations. You have to know the stereotypes to recognise many of the 'jokes' being made but if you do, then they seem laboured. Another problem is that there is a lot of death in the book as it features an uprising by a dwarfish faction bent on overthrowing the Dwarf Low King and stopping modernisation. I lost count of how many people of all species are killed in this book. It also means there are awkward references to torture and execution that Pratchett seems uncomfortable with and ultimately unable to reconcile with the generally light tone of his books. This may be why 'Unseen Academicals' (2009) focused on football and celebrity is better than this book or 'Snuff' (2011) which tried to deal with slavery and people trafficking.

The highlight of the book is bringing the Low King back to Uberwald by train without being assassinated. This is a rollicking adventure which shows many of the characters in their best light. However, before this we have had a very lengthy development of the trains and rail system to allow this chase to take place and those sections are at time sparse and a little tedious. Perhaps a different structure with Moist von Lipwig reflecting on how they had got there in flashbacks, would have been better. Overall, the book is thoroughly written with worthy points. However, it was a distraction rather than a real entertainment the way earlier Pratchett books were.

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