Wednesday, April 29, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
I would be surprised if most readers of this blog had not already treated themselves to the amazing series of fictional reminiscences that comprise the Flashman novels, in which the late George MacDonald Fraser combined the historian’s skill at accumulating and synthesizing data with the novelist’s talent (genius, in Fraser’s case) in spinning facts into some of the most enthralling yarns of the last thirty years. Fraser also brought his skills to bear in producing an outstanding personal memoir of military service in WWII. Quartered Safe Out Here, originally published in 1992, is the story of Fraser’s experience as a young enlisted man (19 years old when he joined up) with the “Black Cat” Division and its big push against the Japanese in Burma.
In the introduction, Fraser opines that, “By rights each official work [of military history] should have a companion volume in which the lowliest actor gives his version…For example, on page 287 of The War Against Japan: volume IV (The Reconquest of Burma), it is briefly stated that ‘ a second series of raids began…and ___ Regiment suffered 141 casualties and lost one of its supporting tanks…’
That tank burned for hours, and when night came down it attracted Japanese in numbers. We lay off in the darkness with our safety catches on and grenades to hand, watching and keeping desperately quiet. The Japs milled around in the firelight like small clockwork dolls, but our mixed group of British, Gurkhas, and Probyn’s Horse remained undetected, although how the enemy failed to overhear the fight that broke out between a Sikh and a man from Carlisle (someone alleged that a water chaggle had been stolen, and the night was briefly disturbed by oaths in Punjabi and a snarl of ‘Give ower, ye bearded booger!’) remains a mystery.” The eye for dramatic detail and the ever-alert sense of the comical twist that made the Flashman novels so irresistible are on full display in this book.
Among many fine passages, there is a moving tribute to General William Joseph “Bill” Slim. Here Fraser tells of an almost casual, understated address to the troops. “Slim emerged from under the trees by the lake shore, there was no nonsense of ‘gather round’ or jumping on boxes; he just stood with his thumb hooked in his carbine sling and talked about how we had caught Jap off-balance and were going to annihilate him in the open; there was no exhortation or ringing clichés, no jokes or self-conscious use of barrack-room slang – when he called the Japs ‘bastards’ it was casual and without heat. He was telling us informally what would be, in the reflective way of intimate conversation. And we believed every word – and it all came true.”
Quartered is such a well-written book that it easily lends itself to quoting – but I’m not going to do any more, because you need to read it from beginning to end, the whole, gripping narrative, without further chopping from me. Truly, this volume carries my highest possible recommendation.