Boyd Tonkin: Why we still listen to the battle's din

The week in books
  • @indyvoices

In the nation's independent bookstores, last week's chart-topper was not a brand-name thriller, nor a celebrity confessional. It took the form of a massive, multi-dimensional, 50-year-old novel, translated from the Russian (quite superbly, by Robert Chandler). A freak event? Not really, once you merge the overwhelming grandeur of Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate, BBC radio's praiseworthy commitment to its high-profile dramatisation – and our seemingly insatiable appetite for Second World War stories. The titanic conflicts of 1939-1945 remain our Iliad and sagas combined. How can, or should, we halt or divert the tide of myth?

Britain in particular should dump its wartime fixations and go forward. So argues the kind of opinion-monger who likes to talk about going forward. The case carries weight if it means paying closer attention to the entire span of the German past - not merely the Third Reich - or to Asia's history. And we have all met those Second World War junkies who inhabit a sort of bloodstained intellectual cage.

All the same, it's likely that at least one more generation will pass before 1939-1945 ceases to act as the final touchstone of heroism and villainy, resilience and barbarism. And, if the "moving on" brigade frets about the British cult, then they should visit Russia.

The Soviet Union (as was) lost approximately 27 million people in the war; China around 15 million. British dead numbered 449,000. Global fatalities, often assessed at 60 million, may be ten million in excess of that soul-shrinking sum. Those figures toll like funeral bells through the finale of Max Hastings's new synoptic history of the Second World War, All Hell Let Loose (HarperPress, £30). Wary of the battlefield mania in British publishing, I did harbour doubts about the prospect of yet another doorstop synthesis, and from an author who has already written half-a-dozen military histories about various theatres of the war.

I stand corrected. All Hell Let Loose is a truly grand achievement: humane, sceptical, vivid, authoritative and utterly free of jingoism or axe-grinding partisanship. More than in his other chronicles, Hastings delivers history from below: "bottom-up views and experiences", of civilians and combatants alike. He deploys diaries, journals and dispatches magnificently, from the Greek soldier bereft at having to leave his beloved grey horse during the bitter winter of 1941 to the grumbling professor in Dresden (the great Viktor Klemperer) and riveting reports by Grossman himself. He catches up with a history teacher in the Red Army as it re-takes Kiev. They talk about their role "in events about which history teachers will be telling their pupils a hundred years from now". From Hastings you would expect – and amply receive – sweeping and thrilling set-piece accounts of the movement of the fronts: such as that around Kursk in the stifling summer of 1943, where "the largest armoured forces the world had ever seen lunged at each other, twisting and swerving". So I tested this epic against the possible weak-points of a British military historian with his background. No recent book has done more to disturb Britain's mythical orthodoxies than Churchill's Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee (Basic). Her cool, painstaking account affirms Churchill's personal responsibilty for the depth and length of the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944. Up to three million died thanks to the PM's utterly bigoted obduracy – even as the imperialists who ran the Raj begged him to send more relief. And Hastings passes with colours flying. He baldly calls the famine "the most serious blot... arguably upon Britain's entire war effort". Overall, he gives full weight to the ambivalence about the war of colonised peoples, noting that the Allied "vision of liberty vanished... at their own front doors."

Although it grips and moves on almost every page, this book leaves a great weariness behind. Having itemised the butcher's bill of grief, the conclusion finds it "impossible to dignify the struggle as an unalloyed contest between good and evil". Yet, for as long as such compelling works illuminate "the most terrible event in human history", forgetfulness does not much appeal. "The awe of posterity" still endures.

Jack's back, and easily on top

So who came out ahead on "Super Thursday"? Last week saw the release of the 200-plus commercial hardbacks with which publishers hope to corner the Christmas market and so make up for a pretty sickly year. And a decisive winner has emerged. Lee Child's 16th Jack Reacher adventure, The Affair (see our review on p.27), sold more than 30,000 copies inside a week. Note that, compared to the stellar performance of some fictional thrill-merchants, the celebrity memoirs that garner blanket media coverage are doing less well. Top of the showbiz pile so far is The Life of Lee by comedian Lee Evans (above) – but with scarcely more than half of Child's sales.

How to win a romp on the Rhine

The Children's Bookshow, now a regular – and securely funded – fixture of the literary calendar, has started. It is currently taking its circus of writers from venue to venue across the country. Future dates in the season –which runs until December – will involve favourite authors such as Quentin Blake, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Rosen. They will appear in locations from Sheffield (today) to Plymouth, London to Liverpool, Bristol to Newcastle. As before, the Bookshow is running a competition in conjunction with The Independent to win a family trip abroad. This time it will take the winners by Eurostar (with two nights' accommodation) to Strasbourg in France, home town of artist-writer Tomi Ungerer – 80 this year, and a star of this autumn's events. To enter, answer the questions given on the website: www. thechildren' (where the full programme can be found) by 30 November. For terms and conditions, see: