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Explosive red Ferraris
on 27 November 2000
The many Leon Uris fans out there will be upset to read an unenthusiastic review of this book, but I hope my reasons for redressing the balance will be clear. The novel exists on two main levels: as a history of real events and as a piece of fiction. In my view it doesn't succeed on either count.
If Uris really engaged in lengthy research before writing Mila 18, as he states on the title page, he had a pool of valuable information to draw on for a detailed descriptive account of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and more particularly of its inspirational final days. He gives place and street names in detail, with a clear textual description of the layout of the ghetto and reference both to its administration and security forces and to the German controlling authorities. So far so good, and there is no reason to doubt his accuracy. But why then invent so many key characters both in the ghetto and outside? If there was a real-life Andrei or Simon in charge of the Jewish fighting forces, why not give that person's real name and let his historical actions speak for themselves? There must have been a real person in the role of Alexander Brandel, Paul Bronski, Franz Koenig and so on. So why subsume their identities into fictional characters? The end effect is to detract not only from these characters' historicity but from the persuasive power of the genuinely historical events portrayed. The book retreats into fiction - how is the reader to tell which facts, figures and names are authentic, since the salient details of the account are so closely bound up with characters who did not actually exist? So near to the events of 1939-1943, this is an inexcusable approach. For historical accuracy, then, do not rely on Mila 18, but turn instead to an undramatised account such as Israel Gutman's "Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising".
So what? It's a novel isn't it? Well yes, but not even a good novel. A good historical novel, firstly, does not falsify the names of leading characters - its fictional heroes are peripheral to the main events of history, viewing them from a particular perspective and not dictating how they turn out. And good novels are generally better constructed and less trite and cliché-ridden than Mila 18. It was written to be a fictional bestseller and therefore starts with a sex scene. Ho-hum. The main fighting characters are drop-dead handsome and almost entirely without moral blemish, and perfect lovers to boot. The leading women are beautiful, courageous, thoroughly resourceful and true to their menfolk. Only minor characters die early on. With one exception (the hedonistic Horst von Epp), the Germans are vile slimy scrofulous people who get their come-uppance. All in all, characterisation is two-dimensional and entirely predictable.
The writing style might be termed explosive. Exclamation marks, repetition and non-sentences abound. This approach goes some way to making up for Uris' inability, despite the material at his disposal, to write a moderately interesting descriptive passage. A stark, heart-rending portrayal of what it must have been like to lie in the gutters with thousands of others dying of famine and disease - the smells, the sights and sounds in all their richness and horror? You won't find it here. For one thing. the Andrei Androfskis of this world (and we're really only interested in them and their love lives) are able to shrug off hunger and discomfort and never succumb to illness. So instead of description, how about a few stylistically-challenged explosions of lexemes? This is reasonably effective because readers have imagination and can fill in the blanks for themselves, but it is hardly great prose and I defy any ten-year-old not to be able to churn out the same sort of stuff.
To move on to those bugbears of authors writing about foreign countries of which they have little or no experience: historical accuracy, anachronisms and accuracy of the spoken language. The first area I have dealt with in broad terms above, and others writing here have done the same. Beyond considerations of the authenticity of events portrayed during the time period of the novel, various examples of extreme laxness rear their ugly heads. Just one concerns the Italian nobleman, father of journalist Chris de Monti, who would "barrel" around his native land in a red Ferrari at 120 miles an hour - in the year 1910 or so. I think not, on several counts. And couldn't this sort of pratfall cast doubt on other unverifiable details of Uris' historical portrayal?
Chris de Monti, one soon realises, is the central figure in the book. Not because he is terrific in bed or because he is a token "good" Christian whose presence will guarantee that non-Jews too will buy the book, but because he speaks American English. What this means for Uris is that de Monti speaks fluent 1950s Americanese, which is acceptable I suppose. At a pinch it is also acceptable that everyone speaking with de Monti (Polish or German) uses the same language and register. Unfortunately, Uris is too lazy to attempt to vary the vernacular when the Poles talk to one another, and certain American slang expressions sit very uneasily on the tongues of characters whose knowledge of the USA is probably limited to Lucky Strike and Charlie Chaplin. So zero for period feel and geographical accuracy.
To judge by the overall flavour of reviews here, I am missing a great deal in Uris. Then again, the negative reviews of his latest book, "A God in Ruins" might support my viewpoint, since they echo my feelings about "Mila 18". As a historical author, he cannot compare with a serious student of the events of the Warsaw ghetto. As a fictional writer he doesn't quite stink, for there is a certain compulsiveness about this book which owes a good deal to its superficiality, but I for one won't be bothering with "Exodus" or "Trinity".