Books: Skirmishing in Spain on an unsentimental journey

Penelope Lively enjoys a master craftsman's despatches from the battlefield of life

Blame Hitler by Julian Rathbone, Gollancz, pounds 15.99

Julian Rathbone is the author of 24 novels, of which a mere three are in print in paperback; probably his name is familiar only to those who base their reading on the public libraries. This is regrettable, because he is a writer of great flexibility, moving easily from the historical novel through thrillers to the sort of contemporary fiction with psychological overtones that we have here. Blame Hitler is a demonstration of that professionalism which is invisible until you stand back and unravel exactly what has been done.

Students of creative writing could take on the theme as a challenge. Within 287 pages and a narrative time-span of around a fortnight, serve up convincing portraits of two families, one contemporary, one in the 1930s, evoke the atmosphere of a family holiday, blend in significant references to the Peninsula War and the Libyan campaign and underpin the whole with a meaningful correlation between private life and public events.

Thomas Somers is pushing 60, married to a woman nearly 20 years younger and with children of ten and 14. The four of them are on a motoring holiday in France: an unstructured affair which is to take them to stay with friends in the south and then possibly on into Spain, pandering to Thomas's obsession with the Peninsula War. Throughout the trip, he drifts from the reality of family, friends and the scenes of the itinerant holiday to his internal wanderings, based on the edition of Wellington's despatches which he is reading (edited by Julian Rathbone, quotations duly acknowledged) and, even more significantly, his disturbed reflections about his childhood. Within days Thomas will reach the age at which his father died; he finds this prospect deeply unsettling.

Intimations of malign fate crop up from the start, with mounting gravity. First there are just the standard mishaps of car keys apparently lost, the cap of the petrol tank left on the car roof, the near accident that leaves everyone shaken out of holiday complacency. Thomas gets a bout of flu. More sinister - he has rectal bleeding. Thomas's bowel movements become a central matter of the narrative.

My own reservations about Thomas are not that we have to spend an awful lot of time in the lavatory with him, but concern his personality. He comes across as distinctly unappealing and I'm not sure that this is the author's intention. He is obsessive in every way - about his father, about the war, about sex. He is panicked by that looming climacteric - 60. The anxious sexual fanaticism lands him in trouble when he allows himself to believe that a young hippy who picks him up is seduced by his ageing charms. He is far more tolerable when mulling over the memories of his parents, which weave into the contemporary narrative and turn it into something more than a brisk account of a meander through France and into Spain.

Thomas's father was a victim of history, his life "stained" by an event during his war service in the western desert. But before that, he was betrayed by the social and economic climate: an Oxford graduate never able to earn a decent living, a man trapped by class and assumptions. Thomas is haunted by the conviction that his father was a better man than he is and also by a kind of grim rivalry. The final section takes Thomas off on his own into Spain, allowing for a defiantly appreciative account of a bullfight and some convincing drunken hallucinations of the Peninsula campaign. And even if the end seems an anti-climax, this is a shrewd and intricate narrative by a skilful novelist, admirably deft in its shifts from the inconsequential dailiness of the family holiday to the immediacies of childhood memory and battlefield experience.

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