Saturday, December 23, 2006

Magnus Mills - Explorers of the New Century

I’ve been a fan of Magnus Mills for a long time. At you turn the first few pages of any of his novels, it feels like you are reading a terribly simple story. And then, slowly, a sense of unease creeps across you, as dark and subtle twists and lapses in normality are introduced into the story. Perversion pervades (distortion, not sexual).

In his most recent book – Explorers of the New Century - Magnus Mills tells the story of two teams of explorers, retting across a difficult landscape to find the "Agreed Furthest Point", an awfully long way from where they set off. John’s men (all with English names) set off from base camp with regimental inefficiency, a large team, with hierarchy, roles, and their mules. From early on, I wondered if I was starting to pick up tale tail signs that something wasn’t quite right, but in the end it was still so cleverly disguised.

While not officially a race, the other team is smaller and seems to make simpler progress towards their goal. Yet Tostig’s men have near disaster too.

Twenty pages before the end, I had to laugh out loud as some carpentry was performed. It’ll ruin the story to explain what the furniture was for. But it felt so good to know that Mills had a few more surprises up his sleeve.

In some ways, the book was disappointing. It wasn’t as dark as his first couple of books: The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express.

But by the end the book still made it’s point. I’d heard an interview with the historian David Irving on Radio 4’s Today programme podcast while out pushing the pram this afternoon. Often dubbed a “Holocaust denier”, he’s back in the UK after serving time in an Austrian prison. Historians are in the word trade, so he uses his words very carefully.

Irving told his initial Austrian trial that the role of Auschwitz as a “killing centre” had been hyped to pander to the tourist trade. (He alleges that the gas chambers that visitors see around were actually built four years after the war.) He suggests that there is no evidence that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. On the contrary, he points to evidence that Hitler intervened on behalf of some individual Jews. He also states:

“For the last 15 years, I have made no bones at all about the fact that the Nazis killed millions of Jews in different methods around the world, around their empire, particularly on the Eastern Front.”

It’s a complicated business, and one that I’m far from being an expert in. One instinct tells me to dismiss Irving as a crank; another defends his right to hold an opinion that most will find offensive.

Anyway, why am I telling you this in the middle of reflections on a book? Well, humankind’s desire to deal with other human beings, to categorise them, deal with them, eliminate them, move them, provide for them. It’s continual. Throughout history.

The reason for and philosophy behind the two team’s trek to the Agreed Furthest Point is tied up in this.

Some more thoughts will follow ... but if you like your humour dark, read this book. (See the second post in the thread for regular commentor John Self's review.)


Nothing said...

wow! you've got a fantastic blog here! keep up the good work!

John Self said...

Thanks for the link! Although it's a year or more since I read it, I think Explorers stands up as one of Mills's best - comprehensible and funny without being too obvious (cf The Scheme for Full Employment), and not as obtuse as Three to See the King. Having said that, as you'll see from the Palimpsest thread, I re-read the latter recently and found it stood up well, though its concerns are perhaps a little too wide-ranging for it to have as much impact as some of his other stuff.

Jasmine said...

Finding " The Restraint of the Beasts" was in itself a task,but well worth it!
Let me see how to lay my hands on Explorers of the New Century in India!
Great Blog, I've loved Mills tale telling skills as well.