(by Rex Warner) (1941)
Prima facie, this is a poor book: clunkily written, slurpily edited, wildly uneven, as devoid of depth in characters or the forces moving them as any book can be. And yet, it has something; it tackles the great theme of the 20th Century, and beyond – totalitarian cohesion and ‘cleanliness’ vs the chaos and mud of ‘normal’ humanity. And the dry, deadpan way in which high tragedy and low comedy are presented here seem in a screwy authentic way to mirror the keep-calm-and-carry-on fashion of the time in which it was written.
Roy (i.e. Rex) is an orphan brought up at the Rectory in the kind of rural village one finds in Boulting Bros. comedies, adjacent the sinister Aerodrome, which steadily acquires and reshapes its ground and mores. The Air Vice-Marshal is the implacable overlord – his crimes must continue so that the world may be clean. By ‘clean’, he means free of the detritus of the old way, such as family, home, love and marriage, deistic traditions, private property: all words without wings, not to be uttered or indulged by airmen.
Roy, close to a blank-slate, becomes a Speer to this Hitler-figure, who will ultimately be disappointed in him (as all fathers and sons eventually are in the other). It is not just Roy who has a patchy past – the village could have been named Peyton Place. And up at the Aerodrome, despite all the Gestapo-style gung-ho, there are secrets and lies too. The scofflaw Flight-Lieutenant, a cipher if there ever was, has his fingerprints everywhere, including on Roy’s fiancé. At one stage, he accidentally kills the Rector whilst demonstrating a machine gun at a village fair (naturally) and informs the victim’s putative son, Roy: “Of course, it was quite unintentional, but I can’t help feeling a bit cut up about it.”
The plot, loopy and jerry-built as it is (Nineteen Eighty Four it ain’t) has Roy lapsing in his fascistic fervour (which disappears as fast as it arose) and choosing the natural muddle of mankind, the old world, “clean…and most intricate, fiercer than tigers, wonderful and infinitely forgiving.” Warner was a Kafka groupie but unlike his idol, he is an optimist, and so the underdogs muddle through to triumph, though without honour, or much of it.