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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 14 October 2019

"Memoir of the Bobotes" by Joyce Cary

Cary was an Irish novelist born in 1888 and dying in 1957 whose most famous works are Mister Johnson and The Horse's Mouth.  This memoir was published after his death and refers to the time when, as a young man of about 24, he went to Montenegro to work for the Red Cross in a war zone during the First Balkan War, a fight between various Balkan states and the Turks that served as a sort of dress rehearsal for the First World War.

It has some remarkable writing which evokes perfectly the fellowship of young men in war and the everyday mundane lives of soldiers, most interested in keeping warm, eating, and where they are going to sleep than in any aspects of chivalry: “Anyone will tell you you that a war is not made up of fighting, but just exactly of stew, and if you are lucky, eggs. Just as the life of an American woman does not consist altogether of marriages and divorces, with homicide here and there, but of stew and eggs, and such matters.” (3.32) This is summed up in his last lines: "If this proves a disappointing book, it must be because there is too much eating, and too little incident in it - too much like life, which is perhaps disappointing for the same reason." He is so right in everything except that this book disappoints.

But the idea that life is made up of the commonplace is a theme of the book:

  • The commonplace infects every person and situation as soon as you are close to them. If the Lieutenant had produced a pistol suddenly, and offered to rob me, there would have been no more than a troublesome brawl, less picturesque than a fight between two sparrows in a gutter or an apache outrage.” (1.2)
  • I saw an Apache outrage once. ... Newspaper reports of this sort of affair make every city clerk long for romantic outlawry. He takes tram to Poplar and smokes opium, or goes for a gypsy during his week’s holiday, and gets harvest bugs in his legs and can't sleep at night without making his under arm go dead. Real outlawry is no more romantic than a desk.” (1. 2)

Ironically, because this is a memoir of war, it is packed with incident. Almost as soon as he arrives in Montenegro he does the tourist thing to see a Montenegrin citadel on top of a hill; a saboteur blows up the ammunition dump stored there and Cary is arrested by a rather frightened soldier. “I don't think he was so much afraid of the shrapnel, as still entirely overset by the surprise of the first bang. His eyes were popping out with excitement, and his breathing was like that of an old asthmatic.” (1.2) Cary is then accused of sabotage, only being released after bravely seeking wounded amid the still exploding ammunition.

He makes one feel the horrors and the everyday of war. In some ways this book reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front:

  • As for the bodies, it is the birds and the sun that take off the noses. The nose is soft, and offers itself kindly to a beak. The sun easily shrivels it. In the same way the flesh about the mouth goes before the harder skin over the cheek bones, and the stomach before the ribs.” (1.10)
  • The whistle can be heard (very thin and sometimes intermittent) a long time before the shot arrives. You have plenty of time to reflect that you can't get out of the way because the way it's not certain enough, and that if there is going to be anyone killed, he will have to be killed, and nothing more’s to be done.” (1.12)
  • The Turks came out afterwards and bayoneted the wounded. Some of them were tangled in the wire, and hung there helpless until they were shot to pieces, or spitted.” (3.24)
  • I lay down with the soldiers - while I had the use of one man's chest for a pillow, another used my thigh” (3.25)
  • The harder it is to keep house the more important it becomes, and the more carefully is domesticity studied, as in wartime. What is the special significance of the term ‘Old Soldier’? It means one who is so cunning a housekeeper that he can make himself comfortable where others are at a loss. A man who always has something eatable in his haversack and drinkable in his bottle, a reserve of tobacco and matches, a warm hole to sleep in.” (3.27)
  • Though I had not made my sleeping sack ... I had watched over it, it guarded it, trundled it about, shouldered it or over the hills, until it had at least the status of a comrade, if not altogether a child of my own fashioning.” (4.40)
  • It is by an imaginative effort rather than direct realisation that danger and the possibility of bullets can be understood. The sniper waits for the failure of the imagination and shoots you because you have forgotten that you must believe in him.” (4.44)

Some things never change:

  • Englishmen pass through the world as if its countries were so many chambers of the Sarcophagus Club, as if they had been only lately elected, and were still afraid of the waiters.” (1.1)
  • Naturally, if one speaks English to a person that only knows French and Albanian, it must be spoken very loud indeed to make him understand.” (1.11)
  • It is always better to do things in Montenegro and get permission afterwards.” (3.25) I have observed that this is true not only in Montenegro but around the world.

He is excellent at description:

  • He was a portly old gentleman, and the immense long barrelled revolver, which all Montenegrins carry in the front of their sash, stood at a long distance from his backbone.” (3.32)

And he really understands people:

  • The Sergeant-Major was really a kind man, but I had not yet discovered that no bolts ever flew out of his thunder.” (1.4)

Other brilliant lines include:

  • There is no kind of work always so apt to hand in a base camp as the moving and removing of boxes.” (1.3)
  • A clergyman once told me privately that he could not understand how a boat could be sailed against the wind. I told him that I should be very diffident of attempting his trade, while he declared it required less wits than any other - that that was why the clergy wore their collars back before, as a warning that special allowance should be made for them by ordinary intelligent persons.” (1.4)
  • There is nothing so delightful as busy and active work which has some sort of immediate result, everyone likes cutting down trees, painting fences. rummaging box-rooms, excavating pits, blasting rocks.” (1.4)
  • I had a nest of my own on top of a pile of baggage, shared with an old mother, who had no corners. She was above stays, and even the point of her elbow was comfortably soft. When she laughed her whole surface waved in ripples; to make a remark to her was as if you should drop a stone in milk.” (1.6)
  • This was already the time of the armistice, which was respected far too well by the Montenegrins for their own good. For the first time they were fighting by the rules of European warfare, and they are not yet enough civilized to know that these rules are never kept.” (1.12)
  • Soap and clean sheets are only the binding of the book - useful to keep it together, but paid for with a grudge.” (2.21)
  • Cap is a marcher with that sort of spring in the joints which is like wit in an argument.” (3.23)
  • The etiquette is two salutes to the handshake - a courtesy-sandwich with the meat in the middle.” (3.26)
  • The others only desired a large fire with plenty of flame and smoke - a fire as easy to cook over as it would be to tow a baby's perambulator with a ten-coupled engine.” (3.27)
  • We had a bayonet for candlestick, stuck down in a crack of the hearth, with the candle in its socket.” (3.27)
  • The pup lost herself on Murican journey, and caused Lauder some uneasiness. He waited two days, and then marched back alone to find her. She was with a lover. Lauder did not approve the match, describing the bridegroom as a black mongrel, lame in the hind leg, with a broken tail, and forbade the banns. The pup nevertheless grieved for a few hours, and then worked off her trouble in prolonged efforts to get a four inch skull into a three inch meat tin.” (4.40)
  • You who sit in an armchair, made by a man you don't know the name of, and bought in a shop, before a fire of coals dug out by total strangers in a country as far off, for all you care, as Kamtchatka, delivered at your door by a heaver at best merely an acquaintance, arranged and lit by a servant who probably did not greatly like you, do not know what the pleasure of the fireside means.” (4.40)
  • The Boy Scouts were supposed to be a Red Cross unit, but they were of very tender years besides being armed to the teeth.” (4.41)
This is a beautifully written book.

October 2019; 164 pages

Books about war in this blog:
Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

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