18 OCTOBER 1963, Page 25

War and Peace

WITH a notable few exceptions, a woman's con- ception of a battlefield relies upon books and films, both documentary and fictional. There has been no lack of either in the last twenty years, but even so the actual feeling of what it must be like to attack up a slope slippery with mud, to dodge from doorway to doorway amidst the rubble of a street, or to wait tensely looking through the sights of a gun trained upon ad- vancing tanks, demands an extra effort of imagination. In South of the Main Offensive, by Grigory Baklanov, these particular aspects of warfare are graphically described in all their• physical misery and terror. Yet somehow they do not add up to the stomach-lurching incidents of isolated horror that illuminate the beastliness of war as in, for example, Catch 22.

The story concerns—as the title implies—a group of Russian gunners in an artillery regi- ment containing a last desperate offensive by the Germans in Hungary; it is south of the main offensive being launched by the Byelo- russian armies driving direct towards Berlin, and the importance of the action lies in the Russians holding down the German armour which would otherwise be diverted to the main battle front. There is a group of leading characters—group commanders, artillery officers, sergeant-majors, gunners and office clerks, even a nurse, in love with an artillery officer and sharing with him and his comrades the slit-trenches and dug-outs of their positions—all caught up in the extra- ordinary process of war. The irony of their situation is that most of them, having fought for more than two years in the biggest battles that the world has known, now face death in the final months of victory. Almost everyone is relentlessly heroic—even to crouch down at the whine of a mortar shell is deemed to be cowardly —and the reader is sometimes reminded of those social-realist pictures on display in the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Even so, the war of liberation that the Russians fought, both for themselves and (as they see it) for other parts of Eastern Europe, comes through in the writing as the unimaginable epic that it was.

David Garnett has rewritten the story of Noah because it is 'the most charming' in the Bible. And he has embellished it delightfully, adding to the animals and birds in the ark one other pair of survivors—twin girls, Niss and Fan, who, with two of Noah's grandsons, are the pro- creators of a new race. (A sensible enough theory if o le gives the myth a moment's thought.) The twins manage to stow away disguised as woolly monkeys, which works well enough until the real monkeys molest them. 'All aboard, Oh Lord!' Noah shouts skywards, 'You can let her rip now.' And the girls comfort the terrified animals as the rain begins to fall. They are not discovered by the seventy-year-old Noah until almost the end of the voyage, when he makes amorous advances, believing that this is God's reward to him. But the girls rebuff him and he is comforted by Mrs. Noah, who, with her stiff carriage and pink cheeks, is straight out of the nursery ark. But this book is not for children. There are some gruesome descriptions of leopard hunting and of floating corpses in the subsiding flood. And a streak of cynicism which culminates in the new descendants of Noah worshipping Apollo. Man will be man, however stringent the means to purge him.

Thomas Hinde's new book, Ninety Double Martinis, tells the story of Mullins, an im- poverished and undesirable schoolmaster, so embittered and frustrated it amounts to a neurosis. He is oppressed by Sanderson, his colleague, who is not only handsome and sexually powerful but has a successful relation- ship with the one girl Mullins really covets. The title comes from one of Sanderson's nonchalant quips—he is witty, too—as he watches a jet tear into the sky: 'Another ninety double martinis off to the stratosphere.'

All this we learn in the opening pages of the book as Mullins sits brooding at the window of his cheap room on a rainy Saturday night. The landscape is described with depressing realism, concrete pavements, arterial roads and an endless stream of cars. But the main sub- stance of the novel is concerned with Mullins's thoughts and dreams as the night passes, with real sounds and real physical discomforts weav- ing their way into the imaginary adventures which are all centred round the unattainable Jill, and in which Mullins acts with immense presence of mind and cool bravery. Mr. Hinde has been brave, too, in attempting this difficult and com- plex theme with its interaction of mind and reality. For me the book partly fails, not on this count, which is most competently done, but because I found the dream tussles with gun- men, the hair-raising escapes down dark alley- ways and up innumerable ladders, as tedious as

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