Getting back

Adrian Poole

  • A crowd is not company by Robert Kee
    Cape, 240 pp, £7.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 224 02003 X
  • Bedbugs by Clive Sinclair
    Allison and Busby, 109 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 85031 454 2
  • New Writing and Writers 19
    John Calder, 262 pp, £6.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 7145 3811 6
  • Zhenia’s Childhood by Boris Pasternak, translated by Alec Brown
    Allison and Busby, 115 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 85031 466 6

In what is by far the most rewarding item in Calder’s New Writing and Writers 19, the main character of Harry Mulisch’s ‘Antique Air’ thinks of the war as ‘an almost impenetrable barrier of death, fear, hunger’, separating him from his childhood. Yet paradoxically, the war is ‘perhaps his most precious possession, without which he can hardly imagine himself. Nor can he imagine what it can be like to live as he imagines his children have done, a life undivided by such a cataract. In his introduction to A crowd is not company, Robert Kee voices some similar thoughts about the experience of war in youth. In fact, the subject of his book is not so much ‘death, fear, hunger’, as the effects of a unique kind of confinement on a young middle-class Englishman of his generation – namely, the experience of a prisoner-of-war camp. He originally published it in 1947 as a novel and has now reissued it as an ‘autobiographical memoir’, unchanged except for a brief explanatory preface. It might seem odd for an author to claim a more intimate kind of formal responsibility for a narrative that now seems to him in retrospect to have ‘a strange authenticity, almost as if it had been written by someone else’. A meal could be made of this, but it would be a dull one. Everyone knows what it means, and there are many more interesting things about the book than what to call it. ‘Personal Narratives, British’ in the British Library Cataloguing Data on the fly-leaf has a quaint rightness to it.

One of these more interesting things is the shape Kee chooses for his narrative. It is divided into four parts. In the first, Kee is shot down over Holland, captured, interrogated and escorted eastwards to an RAF prison camp; in the second, we are given a generalised account of the routine events and salient impressions of the camp; the third is solely devoted to the most overtly dramatic event, an attempted escape and recapture; the fourth deals with the evacuation and forced march of the prisoners away from the Russian advance towards an unknown destination. Three of these sections are concerned with journeys, but it is only the last that takes us away from base-camp. The isolatable escape-story in Part Three trades very skilfully on a whole lot of familiar anxieties, anticipations and shocks: the reader recognises this sort of narrative and its possible destinations. But it is the journey in Part Four that is the really engaging and troubling one, because we don’t know where the narrator will choose to end it – whether it’s going to reach ‘home’ or conclude on a moment of liberation or simply somewhere in transit. In fact, it closes on the prisoners’ arrival at a new, albeit presumably temporary camp. In the crush of exhausted bodies Kee pulls out the battered poetry anthology that has been his most consistent and comforting companion. He opens it, whether deliberately or not we don’t know, at Rossetti’s ‘Blessed Damozel’. For a moment he escapes from the appalling chaos around him, then he is overcome by disgust and stuffs the book away. And this is, a page later, the note on which the book ends, of utter despair and disgust at ‘what life really was: something foul and heartless, something with no good in it at all’. He reviews and dismisses the possibility that love or beauty might combat or even survive this despair. In his mind, those he has loved died when he entered the prison camp, and the beauty he has found in poetry is now a chimera. He drops the poetry in the mud, and it is trampled out of sight by the boots of the man behind him.

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