Thursday, 7 September 2017

Wheels of Terror - Sven Hassel

Well now. I remember Sven Hassel being very popular in the UK in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies. War books not really being my thing, I never read any, although my dad read them all, and pretty much forgot all about Hassel until I stumbled upon this 2014 Phoenix reprint of his second novel, from 1959, in my local library. I thought, why not? I looked further into the author...

Right, so Sven Hassel was not German, although he certainly fought for the Germans in World War II. Sven Hassel was not his real name but the name he gives to his first-person narrator in his books. Hassel was not even the name he published under in his native Denmark, nor even the name he legally adopted in 1965. Suffice to say, he remains highly controversial in Denmark to this day. Was he hero or traitor or victim of circumstances? That's probably never going to be established to the satisfaction of all. What we can say, more or less for sure, is that he spent the second half of his long life in Barcelona where he died in 2012, and he left a series of fourteen books about a band of misfits (Brigade of Misfits is the alternative title of the only movie version of a Hassel book, which as it happens is an adaptation of this one, Wheels of Terror), the 27th (Penal) Regiment, serving in all the worst battles in all theatres of World War II.

These men are absolutely expendable - all have been convicted of serious crimes and military service is their punishment. They are absolutely brutal but Hassel keeps them human by alternating scenes of appalling violence with the rough humour and downright silliness of men forced to keep unnaturally close company.

The literary style is remarkably original. Each chapter starts with a kind of precis; for example: "They were wounded. You need imagination to get the meaning of that. To go through hospital to understand it." Oddly, none of the core characters are actually wounded or hospitalised in the chapter that follows. You also get an idea of the phraseology in that quotation. It seems somehow oblique, skewed. The sentences are curt, choppy, the paragraphs kept to two or three lines. The dialogue, on the other hand, is florid and grandiloquent. Take this interchange:

"Is that an order, dear Old Un?" asked Porta. "Since you're a sergeant why can't you say in a nice and military fashion: 'I order Obergefreiter Joseph Porta to shut his mouth!'"
 "By God then, it's an order! Shut up, will you!"
 "Now, don't get fresh, you Unteroffizier-crap. When you speak to me you're kindly asked to do so in the regulation army manner addressing me in third person. Full stop."
 "Allright. I, Unteroffizier Willy Beier, 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment order Obrgefreiter Joseph Porta to shut up!"
"And I, Obergefreiter by God's grace in the Nazi army, Joseph Porta, who's beaten the world record in obstacle-racing, am completely indifferent to Herr Unteroffizier's orders. Amen."
There is no story as such, just a series of adventures or escapades as the Germans advance into and retreat from the USSR. The book ends with an event, not a resolution. It is all highly unusual. I stuck with it but am unclear where I stand on it. Did I like it? Well, I certainly enjoyed some parts and other bits stimulated my imagination. I shall probably have to sample more to try and make up my mind. Perhaps the first in the series, Legion of the Damned, which seems to me to be the best known.

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