Silence Among The Weapons, by John Arden; and UnRoman Romans, by Siobhan McElduff

Summary: two wonderful books that in different ways remind the reader of the consequences of violent prejudice for ordinary folk

John Arden (1930 to 2012), a long-term resident in Galway, was a distinguished playwright, and an English member of Aosdana, the elite Irish artistic association. Silence Among the Weapons was his only novel, and was short-listed for the Booker when it was first published in 1982.

1982 was when I first tried to read the book, which I found difficult at the time and brought it back to the library once I had finished part one. This recounted events in Ephesus leading up to the arrival of the Roman general Sulla’s brutal army. 

Over the subsequent years I have often wondered what became of Ivory, the book’s principle narrator, and his lovers, Cuttlefish, an Ethiopian who has been enslaved since childhood, and Irene, an agent of the Persian King. So, I decided to track down a copy and finish what I started all those years ago. 

Like Arden himself, his principle characters are theatrical types. It is from their perspectives that the “great” events are viewed. These include the conflict between Sulla and Marius for mastery of Rome, and the ferocious Social War unleashed against the Italian allies of Rome who had the temerity to claim greater civil rights.  (One part of the book, dealing with Ivory’s adventures with pirates, I thought was probably an allusion to Hamlet who went on a similar jolly before turning Elsinore into a charnel house.)

Silence Among the Weapons led me to Siobhán McElduff’s wonderful book, UnRoman Romans. This is a reader of the ancient sources that she compiled with her students. It deals with the experiences of and attitudes towards people like Ivory and his friends: the slaves, the thespians, the dancers and the gladiators who “elite” Romans despised but upon whom their privilege depended.

I suspect the lives of Arden’s characters are based more upon his own experiences in the theatre than on the ancient texts. But one thing he seems to get very right: McElduff notes that “the Romans were frequently quite appalling in their treatment of those they considered outsiders or different, ” and this is something that Arden conveys starkly.

There is a clear intent in Arden’s writing to sound modern in spite of the ancient setting. Hence his references to “police” and theatre “green rooms” among other things. This is, I think, both to increase the reader’s empathy for his characters and their circumstances, and because, for Arden, Sulla, Marius and the Social War are mere examples of the colonial violence that has plagued the world for centuries. The second part of the book, for example, dealing with the eruption of the Social War makes very clear allusions to the beginnings of the Troubles in Derry: Arden even traces the beginning of his conflict to the reaction of the “City” to the reasonable demands of a “Civil Rights Association.”

I must say I still found portions of Silence Among the Weapons difficult: for one thing I would have expected a playwright to be able to present dialogue more clearly, but much seemed buried in long paragraphs. But the book is well worth persevering with. It is often funny, occasionally horrific, and the characters appealing. One hopes against hope that they can somehow escape the random carnage that is engulfing their world.

It is a great pity that, in spite of its remarkable success upon publication, that Silence Among the Weapons now appears to be out of print and in little demand. A book that asserts the importance of remembering ordinary people in the midst of the machinations of warlords should never be forgotten.

Ashenden, by W Somerset Maugham; The Mask of Dimitrious, by Eric Ambler; and Bad Actors, by Mick Herron

Summary: a glimmer of a new day on Spook Street?

As the increasing brutality and lawlessness of Boris Johnson’s British government becomes manifest, the forlorn cry of “We are better than this” emerges from time to time from the ineffectual British Left. To which, many South Asians, Africans and Irish respond with the question, “When exactly?”

England has certainly been different to this, as the attitudes on display in these three spy novels written over the course of the past century demonstrate. But it is not clear that it was much better when they were written.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden concerns the adventures of the eponymous writer who is recruited into British intelligence during the First World War, as Maugham himself was. The book is mostly set in and around Geneva, Maugham’s own principal intelligence haunt during his spooky days.

Starting in Istanbul, the superb Mask of Dimitrious traces a route through central Europe to Paris in the interwar years. It concerns another writer, Charles Latimer, as he tries to piece together the career of a man who has taken advantage of the bloody chaos following the collapse of the Central Powers to reinvent himself as a master criminal.

Bad Actors, is Mick Herron’s eighth novel in his glorious Slough House series. It follows the hilariously grotesque Jackson Lamb and his Joes as they collide with on-going Russian machinations to take advantage of Brexity Britain.

Each book echoes its antecedents. All three have a fine sense of place. But aside from this they are tonally quite different: Maugham a master of supercilious Englishness; Ambler more hard-boiled but with a keen awareness of the pity of post-First World War European history; and Herron is carefully attuned to how the farce of Brexit nourishes a similar authoritarianism to that which haunted the central Europe of Ambler’s book.

Taken together with Greene and Le Carre these novels suggest a society that has fundamentally changed over the century, shedding at least some of its ignorant self-satisfaction. Instead there appears to be a growing awareness of how Britain has often been an amoral or malign influence in the world. Now, reflected in Herron’s black comedic works, Britain’s silliness is increasing in proportion to its diminishing economic prospects and political influence.

Perhaps then there is a faint glimmer of hope that Britain can become “better than this.” Until then, different generations of spy writers offer interesting insights on how well it has understood what it has actually been.

The Sunken Road, by Ciaran McMenamin

Summary: an exceptionally fine novel of the pity of war

Todd Andrews, as a youth an IRA volunteer, as an adult a distinguished public servant, once observed that two of his comrades on Bloody Sunday 1920 behaved “like Black and Tans.” As Diarmuid Ferriter notes in his history of the Irish Civil War, Between Two Hells, such judgements on both pro and anti-treaty troops became commonplace as that internecine conflict wore on.

So, it is a brave decision that in The Sunken Road, Ciaran McMenamin has taken just such a species of IRA volunteer as his protagonist.

Francie Leonard is a brutal man, brutalised by his First World War experiences, one of the few Catholics in the 36th Ulster Division. He has been fighting in the South with the IRA for much of the War of Independence. Now, visiting his native Fermanagh following the signing of the Treaty, he has to go on the run again when police inspector Crozier, a man he knew in France, gets onto his trail.

The book alternates between Francie’s experiences in mainland Europe, including the Battle of the Somme, with his childhood friend and fellow soldier Archie, and a few days in 1922 around the battle of Belleek and Pettigo, as Francie, with Archie’s sister and his own former lover, Annie, try to evade Crozier.

It is difficult to hold much sympathy with Francie once one learns that he had no compunction shooting a RIC inspector through his wife, irrespective of how bad a bastard the said inspector was. So, I found it tough going sticking with Francie past this early revelation. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to McMenamin’s skill as a writer that one comes to understand how Francie could have become reduced to such depredations. Further, like the priest Francie encounters on Loch Derg, one begins to hope for his redemption and that love may offer some renewal for him, something that the priest sees as possible, even if Francie cannot.

McMenamin’s descriptions of battle and violence are particularly powerful, and the friendships between Francie, Annie and Archie, and later Molloy, an American comrade of Francie, are beautifully drawn.

The Sunken Road is an exceptionally fine novel from a very gifted writer.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

Summary: A sort of American Don Quixote with less philosophical substance and more genocide

Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, two retired Texas Rangers decide to take a herd of cattle from Texas to the north west, for no good reason other than they’re bored in a way that can only be alleviated by the risking of their own lives and those of others. On the way they cross paths with thieves, murderers, and impoverished and defeated Native Americans.

Obituaries of Larry McMurtry noted his admiration for Don Quixote, and this shows, superficially at least. Lonesome Dove is also about two characters wandering the countryside talking nonsense, though the meanderings of Gus and Call are considerably more sanguinary than those of Sancho and Quixote.

Lonesome Dove is a beloved novel and a Pulitzer-prize winner. But unlike Don Quixote, there seemed to me little beyond the bickering. McMurtry himself was reported to have lamented the impact of the book, hoping to have written about “a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization… a kind of Gone With The Wind of the West”… which makes me like McMurtry rather more than his book, which is itself way better than Margaret Mitchell’s vile pro-slavery porn.

But whatever my reservations, Lonesome Dove is certainly an entertaining tome, its brutal characters not without charm or humour, and filled with some exciting moments of violence and with brilliant dialogue throughout.

The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker

Summary: continuing the story of Briseis, perhaps with diminishing returns

By any measure The Women of Troy is a fine novel. I just have a niggling wish Pat Barker hadn’t written it.

This book is set in the days following the fall of Troy, but before the Greek fleet has embarked for home, it’s departure delayed by inclement weather. However It adds little to the peerless Silence of The Girls, Barker’s retelling of the Iliad and Euripides’ Trojan Women. Instead, borrowing heavily from Sophocles’ play, Antigone, The Women of Troy deals with the conflicts arising around the burial of Priam. While gripping it has few of the arresting insights on war and slavery that made its prequel so powerful.

So, there’s a bit of a Jaws 2 vibe to the whole thing. Still, paradoxically, I will be waiting with bated breath for a further sequel: the character of Briseis is a superb creation and I feel invested in her well-being now.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: in the tradition of War and Peace but maybe better

Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredible book. A sort of a 20th century War and Peace but, for me, carrying a heftier emotional wallop than Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Thirteen year old Ugwu gets a job as “houseboy” for Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University in Nigeria. There he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s posh, beautiful girlfriend. He doesn’t quite realise for some time, as he continues with his household duties, that the two have effectively adopted him as part of the family, ensuring that he goes to school, planning university for him, and, when they can, taking care of Ugwu’s blood relations.

Into the orbit of this non-traditional family, comes Olanna’s non-traditional sister Kainene, a business executive, and her English boyfriend, Richard, an academic drawn to this part of West Africa by his love of its art. None of these adults receives much approval from their other relatives and parts of their communities for their choice of lovers. As the story is told from the perspectives of Ugwe, Olanna and Richard, the barbs and abuses they receive, and the tensions they endure, allow for particular insight into the diversity of Nigerian cultures and British and Nigerian attitudes towards each other.

But all of these prejudices pale in the face of the bloodbath of civil war that engulfs Nigeria and leads to the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.

When I was growing up Biafra was still a by-word for famine and the punchline for knuckleheaded racist jokes. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie describes the horror of the war there through the eyes of this small group of young people.

As well as the specific details and dynamics of that half-forgotten war, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the universal story of the impact of war on ordinary people, shattering life and love and brutalising and breaking even the best of people.

It is a masterpiece and wholly deserved of its reputation as one of the greatest books of the 21st century.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Summary: a spectacularly absorbing story of the collision between dreams and realities

Since its publication in 2000 Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning Kavalier and Clay has come to be regarded as a modern American classic. It is the story of two cousins, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Prague, and Sammy Clayman, who when then meet in New York in the late 1930s discover that they have just the complementary talents necessary to produce successful comic books. This includes one storyline featuring a Nazi-fighting superhero known as ‘The Escapist”.

The book skips back and forward in time, from Joe’s escape from Prague, up to the early 1950s taking leisurely excursions along the way into Jewish folklore, the legends of escapology, and the birth of the American superhero genre. 

It is a wildly entertaining piece of work, often funny, occasionally horrific, with central characters Joe, Rosa and Sam who you properly care about, aware that the brutal realities of the time may also consume them as they have so many others. 

Exquisite.

These Honored Dead; and Perish from the Earth (Lincoln and Speed 1&2), by Jonathan F Putnam

Summary: Abe and Joshua thwart crime in pre-Civil War Illinois

In March 1837 newly qualified lawyer Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Springfield, enquired at the general store if the manager, Joshua Speed, knew of any accommodation he could rent. Speed did and immediately sub-let half of his own double bed above the store to Lincoln. So began perhaps the closest friendship of both men’s lives.

Me and Abe

All that is in the history books. What is not in the history books is that subsequently Abe and Joshua established a formidable crime fighting partnership – incorporating Speed’s younger sister, Martha, when she arrived in town – to combat evil doers across the state of Illinois. Something in the spirit of the classic John Ford movie Young Mr Lincoln, this is the conceit of Jonathan Putnam’s series of books which begin with These Honored Dead, and Perish from the Earth. (Both titles come from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.)

The books are narrated by Speed, who over the course of the first two, becomes something of an unofficial investigator for Lincoln as he tries to defend his clients from accusations of murder.

The books are wonderful on multiple levels. They are a fine introduction to aspects of the politics and culture of pre-Civil War Illinois, exploring how these impacted on Lincoln’s own evolving political thinking. They are an elegantly written portrait of a burgeoning friendship between two young men who are, at the beginning at least, on opposite sides of the issue of slavery. Both Speed and Lincoln were migrants to Illinois from Kentucky. But while Speed came from a wealthy slave-holding family, Lincoln was from a background so poor that, as a child, his own father ended his schooling and sold him to a neighbour to pay off a debt. These life experiences manifest in different attitudes to the murderous “peculiar institution” when it intrudes into these stories.

The books take details of this historical period, and the biographies of real people who rarely are granted more than a sentence in a history book and breathe life into them. This elegantly illuminates aspects of history which many may feel they know, but cannot easily empathise with. Added to this is Lincoln’s own warm laconic humour and some twisty plotting and the result is something pretty close to irresistible.

V2, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine cat-and-mouse style thriller set in the final bloody days of a European civil war

Towards the end of the Second World War the Germans launched a rocket assault on the UK. First with V1 “doodlebugs”, a sub-sonic flying bomb, lethal but possible to be brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The subsequent V2 rocket however was a different beastie altogether. A supersonic rocket carrying a one tonne warhead, the V2 was impossible to intercept once launched and would strike London without warning and at random. While not as murderous as the RAF’s civilian bombing campaign on Germany, they still had the capacity to wreak a particular brand of lethal terror on a war weary population.

As with his recent book, Munich, Harris takes this historical background and foregrounds it with his own fictional creations: on the British side, a young Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) officer, part of a team trying to locate the launch sites of the V2 rockets in the Low Countries; on the German side, a rocket engineer, dreaming of space flight but trying to survive the war by causing the needless death of hundreds, an atrocity he finds increasingly troubling. Sympathetic as these characters are, the war means that their allotted roles are to spend its last days trying to kill each other.

V2 is a fine war-time thriller that also offers a melancholic exploration of this most horrific of European civil wars. Nevertheless, unlike the bleak, bleak vista of his last book, The Second Sleep, V2 does carry a glimmer of hope at the end.

The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think

The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.

Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.

Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.

Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.

As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.