Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sound the Retreat (1971) by Simon Raven

Sound the Retreat
    In this, the second volume of Simon Raven's addictive Alms for Oblivion sequence, the story follows Peter Morrison as he travels with 300 other officer cadets to India which will shortly be handed over to the Inidians and therefore does not need them. The description of life in an army training camp is as good as anything in Waugh or Powell. The platoon to which Morrison belongs is entrusted, as an experiment, to a Moslem officer, Gilzai Khan - one of the great characters of literature, if only Raven were still read by anybody. The first half of the book is breathtakingly good. My only complaint is that this novel, written fairly late in the sequence (Raven did not write them in chronological order of events in the series), seems to indulge in pornographic excess, thanks to the newly won relaxation of censorship laws. It's not so much a matter of bad taste as the usual rule of more being less. It is in the nature of pornography to be mechanical and superficial, which produces a jarring effect. Instead of being 'racy', the outrageous sex duel between Mortleman and Gilzai Khan actually stops the narrative dead in its tracks and takes a while to live (or read) down.

Towards the end of the book Morrison is faced with an impossible decision and extricates himself in an unexpected way, especially if one is familiar with some of his later story from other books in the series. The way he deals with his predicament may be contrived but rings true to life in its essentials: it presages what remains just outside the scope of the novel, Mountbatten's shameful withdrawal from India leaving millions to be slaughtered.

No comments: