Friday, 30 October 2009

Mary Renault: The Mask of Apollo (1966)

Edition: New English Library, 1968
Review number: 1389

The Mask of Apollo is one of my favourite straight historical novels (using the word "straight" to distinguish it from crossover historical crime novels, which seem to have taken over fiction set in the past since the sixties).

Set in the fourth century BC, the narrator of the novel is a notable Athenian actor named Nikeratos, who travels to Syracuse (then a Greek city) and accidentally becomes involved with the city state's turbulent politics. Syracuse was ruled by a tyrant, Dionysius, who is dying as Nikeratos approaches the city from the sea, fresh from a triumph in Athens with a play written by the ruler himself. The problem is with his successor. Dionysius had a son, also named Dionysius, but kept him from any semblance of power during his lifetime , leaving him lacking in both judgement and confidence. He also has a nephew, Dion, who is highly respected and who was given many privileges by his uncle (including the right to appear in his presence armed, something no one else was allowed to do). But even so Dion is not likely to be named as the successor over Dionysius' own son, nor (with his suspicious involvement with the foreign "sophist" Plato) popular with other powerful figures in the Syracusan court.

The combination of theatre and politics works well. Renault makes Nikeratos a character based on ideas of what an important actor manager would be like in the twentieth century, a Terry or someone from that kind of acting family. I don't normally like the use of characters with a modern outlook in historical novels, but here it works well.This is partly because nothing is really known about what an ancient Greek theatrical production was like backstage, and it seems likely that the concerns of actors then were similar to those of actors today: gossip about other people in the profession, upstaging and working together, the audience's lack of understanding, and, of course, sex. And in other ways, the character is not at all contemporary. Nikeratos is a proper pagan Greek, who believes that an old fashioned mask of Apollo given to him by another actor is periodically inhabited by the spirit of the god, and treats it as a kind of shrine.

The Mask of Apollo could be considered an archetypical historical novel. It is narrated by an (imaginary) character at the centre of a series of interesting historical events, who knows people the reader may well have heard of (Plato, Dionysius father and son, Dion; Aristotle and Philip of Macedon - the father of Alexander the Great - are also mentioned). Nikeratos isn't interested in politics, and becomes involved with the Syracusan power struggles unwillingly - and this is useful to the story, because he constantly needs things explained to him which would not be needed by a more involved politician but are going to also be unfamiliar to many readers. The history of Greek Syracuse is probably not terribly well known today, but it is eventful and has fascinating characters, so makes an excellent choice of subject for a historical novel. It also balances out the much better known Athenian characters (Plato in particular, as someone whose influence on the development of European culture is immense), even though Nikeratos is himself from that city. And even in the parts of the book set in Athens, Renault manages to combine the relatively unfamiliar with things which are much more likely to be obscure or unknown to a modern reader.

The background is meticulously researched yet made accessible to the reader without becoming a series of lectures on the ancient Greek way of life. In fact, I would say that the novel is one of the very greatest of its type, not just one I like personally. Renault does not indulge in the kind of literary games which can be seen in The French Lieutenant's Woman, almost contemporary, but still achieves a literate power without this postmodern slant.

One of the themes explored by the novel is the nature of personal pagan religious feeling. Nikeratos' attitude to the mask is one of several examples of devotion to a god or goddess to whom an individual worshipper feels a particular affinity. This is striking as it is a major difference to today's largely secular western  world, where even those who attend places of worship tend to separate off their everyday life from their religious observances; the chosen deity was a major part of the worshipper's daily life, with an idol (like the mask) as a focus for the relationship. Evangelical Christians talk about a personal God, but the very fact of monotheistic belief makes this God seem much more remote and unconcerned than who is a patron of your profession, or shares your name; and the Protestant history of deism (a God who is relatively uninvolved with His creation) in their theology makes this remoteness even greater. Ignoring the issue of whether or not either the pagan or Christian gods are real, this seems to me to be less appealing to the imagination.

So The Mask of Apollo is interesting, readable, thought provoking, well researched, and has good characters. I would rate it at 9/10.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

P.R. Reid: The Colditz Story (1952)

Edition:  Coronet, 1972

The Colditz Story is the tale of the British prisoners of war incarcerated in Oflag IV C, Colditz Castle, which was used to hold officers who had already attempted to escape from other camps by the Germans during the Second World War. Reid, as Escape Officer (co-ordinator of escape attempts) helped organise many escapes and was in an ideal position to document them. The book covers the period from Reid's arrival as Colditz was being set up, to his own successful escape to Switzerland a couple of years later.

The story of the ingenious escape attempts from Colditz are almost as famous as that of the Great Escape, and the book was immensely successful, not just becoming a TV series (which this edition was released to tie in with) but a board game which I remember playing in the seventies. The book used to be in just about every library (including school libraries) in the UK. (I don't know if it is this popular today, but it is noticeable that the public libraries I use still have a Second World War section which is much larger than the rest of history put together, so similar tales continue to hold the imagination of the British public.) This means that it will have been read by any voracious male (it almost certainly appeals more to boys) reader of my age or older, and many more will have seen the TV show (I was a few years too young to see it myself.) The story told by Reid is very memorable, and I found myself remembering details I hadn't read for thirty years.

Reid immortalises a particular kind of heroics, which is also one stereotypically associated with the products of the British public school system. It is all about the battle of wits with the Germans, and the game effectively become more important than the ends. Clausewitz is frequently quoted as saying that "War is the continuation of politics by other means." (It is in fact a slight misquotation.) But to Pat Reid and others like him, usually enthusiastic products of an English public school, it would be more correct to suggest that was was the continuation of the sports field by other means. However, the value of an escape (to anyone other than the escapee) was in the end not in the chess game which led to it.

So, is is really the duty of every prisoner of war to attempt to escape? Reid takes it for granted that this is the case, so much so that he doesn't even discuss the officers' reasons for making achingly difficult escape attempts (such as carrying out such a convincing simulation of insanity that the escapee risked suffering mental damage as a result). According to Wikipedia's list, there were 37 successful escapees from Colditz, 10 of them British. This is a vanishingly small number among the war's combatants, and it is not likely that any of them would have been so effective individually that their escape would have made a direct military difference to the outcome of the war. (This argument doesn't hold so well for other nationalities, such as the French and Belgians, whose home countries were occupied.)

The only conceivable benefit to the war effort from a successful escape that I can see would be through morale boosting propaganda. I'm not saying that this would be a negligible benefit, but another thing which Reid doesn't mention is what the escapees did on returning home. First British escapee, Airey Neave, went on to work for MI9, the British secret service in charge of aiding resistance movements in occupied Europe, but he was by a long way the most distinguished of the escapees (and probably the best known British inmate with the exception of Douglas Bader). Reid himself was unable to return to Britain until after the war. Others were killed in action, or their escape remained the major event of their war service. Nothing I can see in Wikipedia entries (not necessarily the most authoritative source, but easily accessible) suggests that the British used escapees for propaganda purposes. Compared to the work of SOE, the activities of Schindler, or the dedication of the Bletchley code breakers, POW escapes were extremely unimportant in the history of the War. If it does  not serve the overall aim of winning the war in any particular way, it is surely not a duty bound on every prisoner of war.

Compared to many prisoners of war, those incarcerated in Colditz were not particularly ill treated. Food was sparse, but that was something fairly commonplace in wartime Germany - and it should be remembered that the Nazi regime was not a signatory to the international convention which governed the treatment of prisoners of war (and yet the regime at Colditz seems to have respected the convention's rules - they had exercise, access to primitive medical care, and even received parcels from home). The imprisoned officers were not forced to work themselves to death, or used for medical experimentation, or killed in large numbers, as Jewish prisoners were. They were certainly very well treated compared those British soldiers captured by the Japanese. And in more modern times; the Americans who suffered sleep deprivation in the Gulf, or the terrorist suspects waterboarded by the CIA were worse off. So bad treatment was also not a big motive for escape.

Another question which occurred to me that passed me by thirty years ago was whether escapes like those detailed here would be possible now. Reid says at several points that he is suppressing details, so that the same tricks could be reused without the authorities in the camp being aware of them in advance - he obviously expects the inmates to be more clever than the guards in terms of reading between the lines. But a lot has changed in almost sixty years. There was no electronic surveillance; in fact, the use of microphones hidden around Colditz to detect tunnelling was probably the first move in this direction. So there were no cameras, no use of biometrics (it was even possible to use handmade plaster statues to hide the absence of inmates at roll calls), no electronic keys on doors, no automatic closing of doors when alarms were sounded, and so on. However, we have all of these in prisons today, and yet there are still escaped criminals, so perhaps it would still be possible to get out of a POW camp.

Reid is a product of his class and time. There are so many details in his writing which indicate this; one which is symptomatic is the way that, whenever he introduces a new character, he lists the school (invariably a public school, which says something about how the British armed forces chose officers sixty years ago) attended by the prisoner. Where the school is not one of the best known (Eton, Harrow, Rugby, etc), this is not going to tell the reader much unless they also went to a public school.

Reid's style is unpolished, not that of a journalist or novelist. He consistently uses unvarying derogatory slang: the Germans are always Gerries, the guards are always goons, and so on. He is an extremely keen user of exclamation marks, something which I find particularly irritating when reading. But on the whole the interest of the stories overcomes all the difficulties and makes The Colditz Story a good read. My rating: 6/10.