Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! continues……
As a rule, because of my academic background and predisposition toward policy analysis, I have a difficult time picking up a novel. Not because I dislike novels, but because with so many histories and “serious” policy books in my antilibrary demanding to be read, I feel guilty indulging myself in reading fiction. Realizing that is mildly insane, I decided to shoot for a better balance in my reading this year between fiction and non-fiction and must report….that I have failed miserably. I’ve only read five novels so far in 10 months but one of the five that I read was Killing Rommel and I’m glad that I did!
I “met” the novelist Steven Pressfield online through the first iteration of his website, then a focus on the tribal aspects of the war in Afghanistan. We had some intriguing exchanges and I picked up his The War of Art, one of Steve’s few non-fiction works about becoming a professional writer ( or any creative professional) and defeating the internal psychological resistance that thwarts success and acheivement. I loved that book and read it straight through in one sitting, and later interviewed him about it. Knowing my interest in history and military affairs, Steve sent me a copy of his Killing Rommel and it sat in my antilibrary until this summer, where I read it during long stretches at poolside.
I found Killing Rommel to be a page turner.
Via a literary device, Killing Rommel is the story of “Chap” – Major Richard Lawrence Chapman, DSO, MC. – and his mission as a member of “The Desert Rats”, The Long Range Desert Group of the British Army to find and kill the legendary commander of Afrika Korps, Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel, “The Desert Fox”. In pursuit of his mission, “Chap” encounters an array of reverses, hazards and adventures in a manner of an ordinary, thoroughly decent, man rising above himself to master circumstances both physically heroic and morally agonizing, leaving the field with honor and humanity intact but free neither of doubt nor memory.
What makes “Chap” remarkable and identifiable as a character in his British ordinariness of an officer doing his duty to King and country, is the uncanny and unerring way Pressfield has reconstructed a British outlook specific to Chap’s time and class – that of the “respectable” upper middle class or younger sons of younger sons of gentry, for whom education and life was bounded by the traditions of the public school and military regiments to which family history was attached. It is a quality of “placedness” and sense of self that most Americans (other than scions of Andover and similar prep schools) cannot easily relate. Where you went was part of who you were and your whole outlook on life. Once established, Chap’s history consistently informs his actions and reactions as the plot progresses; Chap, in other words, “lived” an authentic life in Killing Rommel.
A second feature of Killing Rommel is Pressfield’s fidelity to historical realism. This is expressed both in his attention to details of military history and geographic setting and his willingness to grip war – even an unimpeachably “good” war as WWII – in all it’s moral ambiguity and unmediated violence on the human scale. It is disturbing to the reader that Rommel, the great enemy and objective of the mission, is an admirable man fighting for an evil cause; it is disturbing that dying Germans are not unrepentant Nazi beasts but are found to be men with families and lives, conscripts and volunteers, not unlike Chap and his comrades, who must persevere and fight for their lives but acknowledge these shades of gray.