Thursday, January 31, 2019
AN ICE-CREAM WAR
(New York: Vintage International, 1999; c.1983, c.1982 UK)
By WILLIAM BOYD
Review by Hugh Murray
Boyd has written a novel about the colonies – but without colonials. All of the characters are white (one Indian insurance agent is a minor exception). The Africans are described as porters, askaris (soldiers), maids, etc. They are not described individually except to reveal that some of the German askaris filed their teeth and possibly filled the British with dread due to a brutal reputation. A central character in the novel, Gabriel Cobb is a newly married English soldier who is assigned to duty in British East Africa (Kenya). The British stage a landing to capture the German East African port of Tanga; the German defense is stronger than anticipated, the British assault ends in chaos. Gabriel, fleeing from the enemy's askaris, is bayoneted in his leg and torso. He is then treated at a hospital in German East Africa (GEA, today's Tanganyika). Several years later when he escapes the POW camp there, he is pursued by a German officer, a man who farmed near the border with British East Africa (Kenya), and whose wife helped nurse the injured Gabriel at the hospital. When Gabriel flees, the Germans suspect he has overheard information about the “Chinese thing,” a secret project. The German orders his askaris to “get” Gabriel. However, the German is shocked when they return with Gabriel's severed head.
Boyd's book contains 400 pages – some about Gabriel's wedding in late summer England 1914, the couple's truncated honeymoon in Paris and its Normandy beaches, and the quick call to colors at war's outbreak. Meanwhile, Gabriel's younger brother Felix drifts from Oxford to a touch of bohemianism and into a relationship with Charis, his brother's wife after Gabriel is off in an enemy hospital in Africa. Following a traumatic ending to the affair with Charis, Felix joins the army with the wild hope of finding his brother.
When war first broke in August 1914 GEA attacked the neighboring British colony, but their intrusion was shallow – though deep enough for an American planter whose farm was near Mount Kilimanjaro. The Germans pulled up rails on his farm and burnt other supplies. On the other hand, Britain ruled the waves, so the Germans in their colonies were on their own, unable to be resupplied by the Vaterland, and one after another surrendered or were decisively defeated: Togoland, Kamerun, Germ. S. W. Africa, Kaiser Wilhelmsland, the Shandong Peninsula in China. The British, with additional troops from Europe, India, and West Africa began their assault on GEA at the small port of Tanga, where the naval based invasion failed to dislodge the German defenses. In this battle, Gabriel was wounded by the German askaris and captured. The Germans then claimed the spoils of battle, gaining supplies they could not receive from the homeland. Boyd is good at describing battles.
By January 1917 Dar-es-Salaam, capital of GEA was in British hands as they prepared assaults against German positions to the south. However, the Vaterland has not forgotten the colony. In November 1917 the Germans prepared a large zeppelin, the L57, to depart from one of the Central Powers, Jamboli, Bulgaria, carrying 15 tons of medicine, food, and military supplies to the beleaguered GEA. Boyd weaves this fascinating episode into his narrative. The zeppelin flew across the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, across Egypt, across half of the Sudan. But then it turned back to Bulgaria. This was the secret “Chinese matter” that is part of Boyd's plot. In the novel, Boyd has British intelligence, aware of the German secret codes, signaling the airship that GEA has already surrendered, and therefore it should return to Europe. Wikipedia relates that the German commander in GEA, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, then stuck in mountainous areas, believed it would not be safe for the dirigible to successfully land in the rugged terrain as the airship might be punctured and explode in flames; so he ordered it to return to Europe. Whatever the source, the airship did return to Bulgaria, but in doing so it established a world record of 94 hours in continuous military air flight – a record that still holds after a century.
Soon after WWI erupted W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that when Germany invaded Belgium, it conquered the Congo. The Congo barely appears in this novel, but had the Central Powers been victorious, surely the African colonies would have been redistributed, with Portuguese and Belgian colonies already discussed for transferal to more advanced nations. Instead, the Kaiser Reich lost; all the Central Powers had surrendered by 11/11/1918. All except German East Africa.
While the Germans of GEA were losing Tanganyika to superior British forces, the German forces (most of whom were native Africans), crossed the River Rovuma to invade Portuguese Mozambique. They easily conquered and resupplied the themselves while still being pursued by slower, but more powerful British forces. Showing that they were not simply picking on the weaker of the allies, the German forces then invaded British Northern Rhodesia and continued to conquer and resupply. When they overtook a British town, they discovered newspapers, days' old, telling of the armistice and the end of the war in Europe. Consequently, on 25 November 1918 von Lettow-Vorbeck capitulated to the British. WWI was over. Those he surrendered were “155 Europeans, 30 of whom were officers, medical officers and higher officials, and 1,168 askaris.”(p. 392)
Was there any memory of these long-lasting battles that showed the fragility of some of the colonies? That town upon town in Portuguese and British Africa could fall to a small army composed mainly of natives, which supplied itself on the spoils of battle?
In the 1920s the films of Hollywood and perhaps Babelsberg were pre-eminent, but Britain too had a film industry. And some of those films were to be shown in the colonies. Some of the films for the largest empire on earth would feature the American actor/singer/former all-American football player, Paul Robeson. Various African students studying in the UK were hired as extras, to be natives in the films. Robeson would speak informally with many of the Africans on the set, befriending some. One of the extras in “Sanders of the River” was a young Kenyan, Johnstone Kenyatta, and he and Robeson discussed issues of the day, such as Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. In the 1930s the most famous civil rights case in the US was the Scottsboro rape cases, beginning in 1931 in Alabama after 2 young white women lied and said 9 young Blacks had raped them on a freight train when all of them were hoboing in Great Depression America. The Communists dominated the defense team of the accused Blacks, and appealed the cases to the US Supreme Court for 2 major decisions on civil rights. The international Communist movement also led in demonstrations to free the young men, making the cases an international cause celebre with petitions signed on behalf of the defendants by the likes of Albert Einstein and many prominent intellectuals of the era.
In Britain, a Scottsboro Defence Committee was organized in the 1930s, co-chaired by Paul Robeson and the young African, Johnstone Kenyatta. In 1939 the European war began and in 1941 it was a widespread Asian war too. Robeson returned to the US. Kenyatta worked in the UK. After WWII, in 1945 Kenyatta co-organized a Pan-African Conference in Manchester, and the next year returned to Africa. He dropped his Europeanized first name and became Jomo Kenyatta. He also became head of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya against the British colonial authorities. The 1957 film “Something of Value,” sought to depict the struggle in the colony by pitting Rock Hudson against Sidney Poitier in the battle for Kenya. In the movie, Hudson wins. In reality, Kenyatta became the first president of an independent Kenya in 1964.
Was Kenyatta aware of the role of German askaris in overturning settled colonial areas in eastern Africa? His brother had joined the British troops in WWI but disappeared and never returned. Jomo Kenyatta had studied at missionary schools for much of his early life, a short stint at a university for toilers in Moscow, and various universities in Britain. Nevertheless, could that determined “German” army of WWI have been an inspiration for the successful Mau Mau rebellion following WWII?
Boyd's novel is a vocabulary builder, and many words from the WWI era are sprinkled to season the pages of the book. Here is a list of some, not all of which I was able to find in dictionaries: topee (p. 41), dickie (66), landaulet (77), boater (89), jodhpurs (112), bandoliers (125), pillion (131), Subadar (153), tarbooshes (179), puttees (229), and kopje (367). Boyd, who is Scottish, includes a Scot who speaks with such a brogue that neither the English Felix Cobb nor this reader could comprehend the dialect.
There are fashions in literature as there are in women's clothing. This book was nominated for various prizes when first published in the UK in 1982, even for the prestigious Booker Prize. But today, a novel set in Africa without any real Black African characters would likely be dismissed from consideration for lacking inclusion. There are also fashions about book titles, designating them with titles that have nothing to do with the novel. I have no idea why this is called the Ice-Cream War after reading the volume. One hopes that fashion has abated. After discussing the novel with an American friend in Paris, he decided to google the ice cream war, and there found the reason for the title. I quote from wikipedia: “The title is derived from a quotation in a letter (included in British editions of the book but not the American ones) 'Lt Col Stordy says that the war here will only last two months. It is far too hot for sustained fighting, he says, we will all melt like ice-cream in the sun!”" As this is NOT included in the America version of the book, no wonder the title seems bizarre. If the essential quotation was deleted, the title should have been changed for the American editions. Boyd is no Dostoevsky with trick stories that force philosophical questions that haunt readers. Boyd's novel is a simple. well-written story, and one from which I learnt much.