Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The 14 psuedo-autobiographical second world war books of 91 year old Danish author Sven Hassel, (translated into 19 languages), stands up to numerous re-readings. Danish, he joined the German army, he claims, because it was easier than getting to England and joining the army there.
He deserted and when caught, was put in a penal tank regiment made up of "criminals and dissidents" and the material for his books is based on his time in the penal tank regiment. However, Hassel has one strong critic who claims he was in the SS and his wife really wrote the books. Whatever the truth is, they are compelling reading and like Frank Zappa, his work tilts towards inspiring culthood more than than fandom.
His books follow the experience of the cast of out-cast characters, the deserters, court-martialed soldiers, political prisoners and death row cadre of the (fictional) 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment, the lowest form of military life, closest to the front line hells of the Second World War, who take us from Finland to the Russian Steppe, Normandy and Monte Cassino.
Hassel's novels transcend cultural and national boundries. There are no good guys or bad guys, merely the killed or not killed, pawns of death traded on the whims of those engineering the slaughter far from the front lines. The horror, terror and nihilism of this godless period is recounted with a dispassionate veracity in which the insignificant quotidian human events of daily existence, play out in the hearth of history's flame. The minor parts speaking for a human whole screeching of the authentic experience. His stories capture a banality of the acclimatised individual pawns resigned to fate, whose only loyalty is towards one another in a dog eat dog daily life.
The web of hatreds, tensions and fights between the members in the most expendable of regiments, rippling in a pool of human relationships history has ravelled these men in, are exposed in such a way as to offer a glimpse; a view into the real world behind a rhetoric of sanatised nightly war-news in which the emblems of order, parade ground, spotless uniforms, flags hoisted and draped in clean symetrical lines - disguise the truth of what we do not see and which Hassel's 14 books do not censor of flinch from describing. The characters are not pretty, nor nobel, but criminals and chancers killing men women and children, stealing from corpses and cracking the blackest of gags whilst doing so, infusing the narratives with a logicality of real experience.
We are brought in to see a birds-eye view of what hell on earth is really like, from the remote, safe distance of pseudo-autobiographical fiction-fact which can be re-read again and again. Like Flemming's Bond books in the sense of re-readability, but without the plasticity and veneer of wishful thinking and imperial self-congratulatory romance which idealises and makes attractive the notion that there is a natural order, morally on the right side of murder and killing. In Hassel, killing is a dirty business carried out by flesh and blood men and described without the patina of loyalty to a cause.
"After that he blessed the weapons with which we were to exterminate barbary, but I do not think it helped. For a miserable little priest to stand up and make the sign of the cross at a great tank can be scarcley very effective magic, even if you believe in magic, which I cannot. At the most you might imagine such a creature bewitching small arms. And anyway, they lost the war."
The reward of re-reading Hassel, is that he reminds us in the most graphic terms, what's possible when the world goes insane, and in the absence of affirmation in the good of man, we are rewarded with an almost religious sense - the firm conviction that we must remain vigilent to the truth of his fictions, to not be fooled that war is noble and that a cause not our own individual concern as a human being, in far flung lands - deserves our personal attention.
If the politicians want to go invade some far flung stone age place, why not settle any disputes as those they pay to kill on their behalf? One on one, man to man, bravely and for the cause their own actions wrought? Why ask others to do something we ourselves will not? Because we are needed more, our life more important?
There is no nobility in the face of mechanised and wholesale butchery, merely animal man at his most naked and primitive self.
"It is odd seeing a person lying or sitting or running or hobbling away right in front of you, and for you not to turn aside but drive straight on, over him. Odd. You do not feel anything. You are aware only that you cannot feel. Perhaps some other day, in a week, a month, a year, fifty years. But not just at that moment. There is no time for feeling; the whole business is just something that is happening, going on, pictures and noises, most acutely perceived and immediately shoved automatically to one side to be analysed later."