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Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

After I’d read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962), I knew he was a very good writer. But I didn’t know how good until I read this book too. It wasn’t his prose or his plotting that struck me, competent as they were: it was his ability to think himself into other people’s heads. People in different jobs from different cultures speaking different languages in different parts of the world.

In The Light of Day, he got into the heads of a Greek-Egyptian tourist-guide and a Turkish secret-policeman. In Passage of Arms, he did it with Chinese businessmen, Indonesian soldiers and a Bengali accountant living in Malaya. I was surprised: he’d shown such intimate knowledge of Greece, Turkey and Egypt in the first book that I’d never guessed he could show the same about a whole new region. And not only that: Passage of Arms proves that he knew a lot about the arms trade and shipping too. And about running a bus-service.

Arms and buses come together through the Bengali accountant Girija Krishnan, a clever, observant and ambitious young man who works on a rubber-plantation in British Malaya. His father, killed during the Second World War, had once been on a tour of a factory in London that made buses. Girija has inherited the “bus body manufacturer’s catalogue” that his father picked up as a souvenir. He’s pored over it until he knows it by heart and is now obsessed with managing his own bus-service.

But he would need a substantial sum of money to start it. He sees his chance to get the money after a British army-patrol ambushes and kills a party of communist guerrillas on the rubber-plantation where he works. He has to supervise the burial of the bodies and works out, using clues in what the guerrillas were carrying, that there must now be an unguarded arms-dump near a village called Awang. He searches for it, finds it, secures it, and sets about selling its contents.

It takes him three years, because what he’s doing is highly illegal and he’s proceeding with extreme caution. Girija is an engaging character, brought to life with many small details, from the bus-catalogue he treasures to “the lentil soup” he re-heats as he’s pondering how to find the arms-dump at the beginning of the book. I remember being disappointed on my first reading of this book when new characters came in and he took a smaller role, then left the stage altogether. But everything that follows was set in motion by him, because the new characters are Chinese businessmen, three brothers who are trying to find a buyer for the arms he can supply.

Tan Siow Mong, the oldest brother, is based in Kuala Pangkalan in Malaya, Tan Tack Chee, the middle, in Manila, and Tan Yam Heng, the youngest, in Singapore. Ambler brings them and their psychology to life with small details too. Yam Heng is the “disreputable brother”. He likes gambling, but doesn’t gamble well. That will prove important, as the brothers begin plotting to get the arms out of Malaya and sell them to the Party of the Faithful, a group of anti-communist Muslim insurgents in Indonesia. It’s a complicated business and, like Girija’s bus-service, very important to them. But it’s not important to the world at large or to one of the men who are part of their scheming:

Kwong Kee was a square, pot-bellied man with a cheerful disposition and a venereal appetite bordering on satyriasis. He was not greatly interested in the commercial reasons Mr. Tan gave him for switching the Glowing Dawn temporarily to the Singapore run. Nor was he interested in the cargo she carried. And if Mr. Tan’s young brother [Yam Heng] was foolish enough to want to go home by sea instead of comfortably by train, that was no business of his either. He was quite content to do as he was told. It was some time since he had sampled the brothels of Singapore. (ch. 4, pt. 3)

That’s all we learn about Kwong Kee, but it’s enough to bring him and another aspect of Eastern culture to life. As with all his other characters, Ambler doesn’t judge: he simply presents. And after Girija and the Tan brothers he has two more big characters to present: an American couple called Greg and Dorothy Nilsen from Wilmington, Delaware, where Mr. Nilsen is “owner of a precision die-casting business”. They’re on a cruise of the Far East and they’re about to be drawn into the plot set in motion by Girija. Mr. Tan in Malaya has asked his niece’s husband in Hong Kong to be on the look-out for a foreigner who can get around local restrictions by becoming nominee for “a shipment of arms” to Singapore. Thanks to his job, the husband meets a lot of foreigners:

Khoo Ah Au liked American tourists. He found them, on the whole, generous, easy-going and completely predictable. They were rarely ill-tempered, as the British often were, or eccentric in their demands, as were the French. They did not harass him with questions he had not been asked before, and listened politely, if sometimes inattentively, to the information he had to impart. They used their light meters conscientiously before taking photographs and bought their souvenirs dutifully at the shops which paid him commission. Above, all, he found their personal relationships easy to read. It was probably a matter of race, he thought. His own people were always very careful not to give themselves away, to expose crude feelings about one another. Americans seemed not to care how much they were understood by strangers. It was almost as if they enjoyed being transparent. (ch. 3, pt. 3)

He reads and exploits the relationships between the Nilsens and Arlene Drecker, a lone American tourist who has attached herself to them, to Mr. Nilsen’s increasing displeasure. He carefully introduces news of the arms shipment to Mr. Nilsen and manoeuvres him into becoming the nominee for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Nilsen sees it as an adventure and as a way of striking back at communism, because the arms are going to be sold to those anti-communist insurgents in Indonesia (or Sumatra).

What he doesn’t bargain for is that he will have to go to Indonesia himself to get a signature on the shipment from the insurgents, who don’t fully trust their agent in Singapore. But he sees it as part of the adventure and goes there with his wife:

Their first impression of Labuanga airport was the smell of steaming mud.

It was the most favourable impression they received. (ch. 6, pt. 2)

The officials at the airport are surly and unpleasant, and it takes a long time to clear customs. Then they encounter some of the local wildlife: “a thing like a soft-shelled crab with black fur flopped onto the floor at their feet and began to scuttle towards the wardrobe”; large grasshoppers that “crunched sickeningly underfoot” after invading the Nilsens’ hotel-room at night. In this new environment, the woman who is guiding them, a beautiful Eurasian called Mrs. Lukey who is married to the insurgents’ agent in Singapore, has “suddenly become more Asian than European … It was a disconcerting transformation.”

Then things get much worse. Although Mrs. Lukey is travelling on a passport in her maiden name, the Indonesian authorities have worked out why she’s been visiting the town of Labuanga with so many foreigners. This time they’re ready: the delay at the airport was deliberate, allowing them to put the Nilsens under surveillance. The Nilsens meet the insurgent chiefs, including a Polish called Voychinski who served in the Wehrmacht and has fought communism in “Russia and Italy and Viet-Nam”. Now the authorities pounce and everyone is arrested.

The adventure has turned into a nightmare. General Iskaq, who commands the Indonesian military in Labuanga, is a “cunning and ambitious man” who hates whites because of the way his father, a “Javanese coolie”, was treated by them in colonial days: “All through his childhood, the General had seen his father kicked, bullied and shouted at by white men, or mandurs working for white men.” (ch. 6, pt. 3) If not for his hatred of whites, the General would have gone over to the insurgents, who are commanded by one of his former army comrades. But the insurgents are financed and supported by whites, so the General remains loyal to the communist government for the time being and appoints a sadistic communist as his personal aide: “Major Gani was an able and astute officer with a glib command of the Marxist dialectic and a keen eye for the weaknesses of other men.”

Gani thinks he understands General Iskaq and can control him, but he’s wrong. After the arrests and jailing of the prisoners, the General does not like seeing “his old friend Mohamed Sutan lying on the stone floor in a pool of bloody water, moaning and choking with blood running from his mouth and nostrils.” Ambler supplies another small and telling detail to the beating: “the proudly smiling men” who had carried it out. From bus-catalogues to brutality: Ambler understood the world and could re-create it.

Later on Voychinski, who, unlike the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey, has no consulate to defend his interests, is beaten to death during interrogation. The Party of the Faithful then strike back and the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey manage to get out and fly back to Singapore. Then there’s a twist rather like the twist in The Light of Day, when a manipulated man turns the table on his manipulators. Finally, Girija is back on stage, ready to start his bus-service. Would he have tried to sell the arms if he’d known the death and suffering that would result? Of course he would: they were arms and he knew they were destined for use. One way or another death and suffering would follow.

But he remains a sympathetic character. Everyone in the book does, from the satyr-like Kwong Kee to the “proudly smiling” thugs in the Labuanga jail. As I said, Ambler doesn’t judge: he presents. This is an imperfect world with imperfect people acting on imperfect knowledge. But it’s also a rich and fascinating world. Ambler can convey that too. When the book was first published in 1959, it captured the present. Now it captures the past. But the past is also the present: Muslim insurgents are still in the news.

So are plots and intrigue in Turkey, which Ambler wrote about in The Light of Day. I enjoyed that book more than this one, partly because the most interesting character is centre-stage throughout, but this one is even better at portraying the complexity of the world and the role that chance and judgment play there. After reading these two I was badly disappointed by some of Ambler’s other books, like A Kind of Anger (1964). But « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” At his best Ambler is very good.

Much better than Graham Greene, who’s the obvious comparison. Amblerland is much bigger than Greeneland. Much richer and more detailed too: in languages, cultures, races, ideologies. In objects too. Even “the wheels from an old [child’s] scooter” have a small but important part to play in Passage of Arms. Ambler had a male eye for mechanism and a female eye for psychology. It’s good that this edition of Passage of Arms was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, who says that Ambler was trained as an engineer. Stalin said that writers were “engineers of souls”. It’s an ugly term, but it works well for this book.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Sympathetic SinnerThe Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

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Anthony Burgess discusses Evelyn Waugh:


From Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess (1984).

Brideshead Revisited [1945]

The creation of a television series based on this book (in 1981) was a pretext for the reappraisal of the book itself. The general consensus was that Brideshead Revisited was a sham and a snobbish sham. This referred as much to Waugh’s recension of the book in 1960 (he trimmed off the fat, meaning the gluttony appropriate to deprived wartime but reprehensible in peace) as to the self-indulgent first version. Everything in the novel would seem to be wrong — the implausible invention of a rich English aristocratic family haunted by the God of the Catholics; the Hound of Heaven pursuing the agnostic narrator-hero; the implication that only the upper class can be taken seriously. Charles Ryder, who narrates the story, is seduced by Brideshead Castle and its denizens: but this seduction is merely the prelude to his improbable seduction by God. The eschatological does not sit well with the sybaritic. And so on. And so on.

And yet. And yet. I have read Brideshead Revisited at least a dozen times and have never failed to be charmed and moved, even to tears. It is, appropriately, a seductive book. Even the overblown metaphors move and charm. The comedy is superb: Mr Samgrass, Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche are wonderful portraits. And the evocation of pre-war Oxford and Venice, where Ryder “drowns in honey”, is of great brilliance. This is one of those disturbing novels in which the faults do not matter. (Increasingly one finds that the greatest works of literary art are those with the most flaws — Hamlet, for example.) Waugh’s regular Augustan stance, suitable for a comic writer, becomes confused with one romantic as a rose blown by moonlight, but it does not matter. Apart from its literary qualities, it breathes a theological certainty which, if a little too chic, is a world away from the confusions of Greeneland and the squalor of the Irish. It is a novel altogether readable and damnably magical.

Sword of Honour

Evelyn Waugh [1952-61]

This work was not originally planned as a trilogy. Men at Arms came out in 1952, to be followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955. The author considered then that he had said all he had to say about the experiences of his near-autobiographical Guy Crouchback in the Second World War, but he changed his mind later and completed the sequence with Unconditional Surrender in 1961 (published in the United States as The End of the Battle). In 1966 he pruned and revised and issued the trilogy as a single novel in one volume. Most readers prefer to take the items severally and in their unrevised form (compare Brideshead Revisited).

Guy Crouchback is a Catholic gentleman with a castello in Italy and a private income. His wife has left him to indulge in a series of marital adventures and his religion forbids divorce and remarriage. He is lonely, dim, dull, and has rejected the current of life. The coming of war fires him with a crusading zeal, but he is in his late thirties and the fighting machine does not want him. Eventually he joins the Halberdiers, trains, sees action in Dakar, Crete, finally Yugoslavia. Waugh does not push Crouchback too much into the foreground at first. There is a fine galaxy of comic characters — the magnificent Apthorpe, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, the uniformed clubmen, as well as some more lovable than the satirist Waugh was previously able to give us — honest professional soldiers like Colonel Tickeridge, old Mr Crouchback with his firm and simple faith, eventually Uncle Peregrine, a universally dreaded bore who is not boring. But the pathos of Crouchback’s situation is woven strongly into the fine war reportage and the superb comic action. Virginia, his wife, divorced again, rejects his advances. His new bride, the army, is proving a slut. Disillusionment about the true nature of the war grows with the entry of the Russians into the conflict.

The age of the gentleman is disappearing. Men whom Crouchback admires prove treacherous or cowardly. There is a new type of hero emerging, summed up in the failed officer and imposter Trimmer, a former ship’s hairdresser. Trimmer sleeps with Virginia and begets a child on her. Crouchback and she reconsummate their marriage and ensure that a great Catholic family has an heir, though — by an irony appropriate to the new age — this child is really a proletarian by-blow. Crouchback survives the débâcle of Crete, is sickened by the “people’s war” in the Balkans, feels the death-urge, regrets the passing of an old order of chivalry and humanity but, with the stoicism of his kind, makes unconditional surrender to history. He had much in common with the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (a tetralogy of the First World War on which Waugh’s work seems to be modelled) — Christopher Tietjens, the incorrupt and traduced gentleman of Christian ideals. What Ford’s book did for one war, Waugh [sic] has done for the other. Sword of Honour is not merely the story of one man’s battles; it is the whole history of the European struggle itself, told with verve, humour, pathos and sharp accuracy.

Extracts from Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987).

The great English Catholics of the age of toleration, from Cardinal Newman to Graham Greene, have all been converts. A cradle Catholic finds it hard to take them seriously. They missed out on the suffering, never gave a drop of blood to the cause, and yielded not one rood of land to the Henrican expropriators. (Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987), pp. 7-8 of the 1988 Penguin paperback)

The converted Catholics of modern literature seem concerned with a different faith from the one I was nurtured in — naively romantic, pedantically scrupulous. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour falsify the faith by over-dramatising it. Waugh’s fictional Catholicism is too snobbish to be true. It evidently hurt Waugh deeply that his typical fellow-worshipper should be an expatriated Irish labourer and that the typical minister of the Church should be a Maynooth priest with a brogue. [I disagree: I think he might have enjoyed this in a perverse way.] (pg. 8)

Jack Tollitt became, like Greene and Waugh, a fierce and pedantic Catholic, shame and example to us all. (pg. 53)

The situation presented in Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms applied to potential rank and file as well as to Oxford gentlemen like Guy Crouchback. What could be sickening about that novel, if the nausea were not mitigated by comic irony, is the assumption that a certain segment of British society was, on the grounds that it had an income from land, an Oxbridge education, and friends among the ruling classes, specially qualified to lead those with none of those irrelevant advantages. Kingsley Amis, reviewing Men at Arms, was right to ask what was wrong with Guy Crouchback’s enlisting as a private in the Pioneer Guards if he were so keen to do his duty. Hore-Belisha’s army reforms, which assumed that the gift of leadership was something to be learned by anyone who could learn it, and not a paracletic bestowal on gentlemen graduates, were considered to be Jewish impertinence. (pg. 222)

Evelyn Waugh was right, in his Put Out More Flags, to point to the peculiarly dreamlike nature of that first war winter. It was cosy. There was no shortage of Player’s cigarettes, real cream cakes and whiskey at twelve shillings and sixpence the bottle. There was a blackout, but this on moonless nights was a call to erotic adventure. (pg. 223)

Trevor Wilson, a Malayan Information Officer with whom I had dined in Kota Bharu, had given me some silk shirts to take back to his friend Graham Greene. Greene had an apartment in the Albany, no longer decorated with the miniature whisky bottles which he had been collecting and was to empty into the pages of Our Man in Havana. He was amiable and I signed a copy of Time for a Tiger [which I think is better than anything by Greene] for him. He took me to lunch at the Café Royal and, as it was Friday, we ate fish. Greene made it clear to me that he had achieved much and had reached a plateau where he could afford to take leisurely breath. He had not written the definitive Malayan novel which would match the definitive Vietnamese one entitled The Quiet American, and he did not seem to think I would write it either. I was comic, there was frivolity in my book. He praised the other great Catholic, Evelyn Waugh, and considered The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which had just appeared, a masterpiece. My own Catholicism, being of the cradle variety, was suspect. I was evidently not to be taken seriously as a novelist, rather as a colonial civil servant who had had the luck to find excellent fictional material in the course of his duties. I was an amateur. This was pretty much my own view of myself. I shook hands with Greene, whom I was not to see again till we were both settled on the Côte D’Azur, and went to look for a job. (pg. 418)


Words on Waugh’s World

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Lives in Writing by David LodgeLives in Writing, David Lodge (Vintage Books 2015)

I’ve never spent a wet Sunday in Hartlepool during a power-cut. Honest. You can probably say the same. However, there are various ways of approximating the experience in the comfort of your own home. You could watch some paint dry, for example. Or you could try reading this book.

In other words: Lives in Writing is deeply, will-to-live-drainingly dreary. David Lodge is a big literary name of the kind I’ve always instinctively avoided. But this is a collection of essays on writers, not one of his novels or books on literary theory, and I thought I could learn something from it. I was right: I did. I learnt that my instincts about Lodge were correct:

The name of Frank Kermode first impinged on my consciousness in 1954, when I was a second-year undergraduate reading English at University College London. In our Shakespeare course we had lectures from Winifred Nowottny, who in due course would be a colleague of Frank’s when he occupied the Lord Northcliffe chair at UCL. (“Frank Remembered – by a Kermodian”, pg. 153)

In 1961, aged twenty-six, I was in my second year as Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham University when the Head of Department, Professor Terence Spencer, decided that we ought to have a specialist in American Literature, and accordingly advertised a post for one. (“Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”, pg. 165)

Can you detect any irony in the phrase “impinged on my consciousness”? Me neither. Does your heart quicken at a title like “Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”? I hope not. But prose like that is certainly inspirational. It inspired me to create a new verb: to plodge, meaning “to write ploddingly dreary prose in the manner of David Lodge”. I don’t think much of English Literature as an academic subject and Lodge helpfully confirms some of my keyest, corest prejudices. He’s a virtuso of ennui, able to be dreary both at length and in brief. Even the titles of his books shrink the horizon and lower the sky: Language of Fiction; Modes of Modern Writing; Working with Structuralism; After Bakhtin; Write On.

Would I rather read a Will Self novel than one of those? It’s frightening that the thought even occurs to me. But I’ll say this for Lodge: he’s not as bad as Terry Eagleton or Christopher Hitchens. Those two are gasbags bloated with self-importance and self-righteousness, spectacularly, sky-swallowingly bad writers. And Lodge himself might agree. After all, he tries to let a little gas out of Eagleton in his review of After Theory (2003):

There are sentences that should never have got past the first draft on his computer screen, let alone into print, like: ‘Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-uphoulstered appearance, is of recent vintage.’ (In the next sentence this uphoulstered vintage is thrown up by tidal waves.) (“Terry Eagleton’s Goodbye to All That”, pg. 131)

But he praises Eagleton too and salutes the “brilliant generation of French intellectuals” – Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, Foucault et al – who were “key figures” in the evolution of modern literary theory. So I’m pleased that he devotes a long essay to Graham Greene and mentions Evelyn Waugh only in passing. That’s the way I would have wanted it. There’s an essay about Kingsley Amis too, which is also good. Alas, William Burroughs doesn’t get plodged, but you can’t have everything. However, you can have a wet Sunday in Hartlepool, metaphorically speaking. Just try Lives in Writing.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Ink for Your PelfLiterary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Cigarettes and Al-QaedaHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

Reds under the Thread – Younge, Eagleton et al

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