Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: 'The Night-Comers' by Eric Ambler

5/5 Stars

While I remember seeing novels by Eric Ambler on the shelves of libraries during the 60s and 70s I never really paid them much attention, thinking that Ambler was something of a poor-man’s Alistair MacLean or Len Deighton. But I read a recent essay by Theodore Dalrymple in which he praises Ambler for his fiction, and ‘The Night-Comers’ in particular:

The book I wanted was a first edition, not much sought after I should imagine, of a novel by Eric Ambler, the English thriller-writer now nearly, though undeservedly, forgotten, at any rate by people younger than fifty. He was a master of prose, and his writing is worthy of close study by aspiring writers. He could convey the atmosphere of an alien land of which the reader knew nothing in simple, but accurate, euphonious and rhythmically beautiful language. Although – one is tempted these days to say because – he had not attended university, his work is also intellectually astute.

So I thought I would give the book a try:

Steve Fraser is a British engineer assigned to assist with the construction of a dam in the island of Sunda, one of the many in the Indonesian archipelago. As the novel opens, Fraser is on his way to the major Sundan city of Selampang, where he will make arrangements for air travel to Jakarta and from there, back home to England.

The novel takes place in the early 50s, after the Indonesian region has won its independence from the Dutch. The ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ and the sanguinary antics of Suharto and Sukarno are still nearly a decade off, but the political situation in Sunda is hardly stable. A warlord named Sanusi has split with the ruling party of President Nasjah, and set up his own ‘revolutionary’ government inland. It appears that the Nasjah government is incapable of eliminating Sanusi, and an uneasy balance of power is being maintained between the former ‘freedom fighters’. The island of Sunda may seem placid on the surface, but violence and anarchy lurk just below the seemingly normal everyday activities of the populace.

En route to Selampang, Fraser befriends an Australian pilot named Jebb, who offers his apartment for Fraser’s use. Jebb also introduces Fraser to a young Eurasian woman named Rosalie, who works as a ‘hostess’ at a local club. Fraser gets set to enjoy what looks at first glance like a pleasant few days in Selampang. But he hasn’t counted on matters coming to a head between Sanusi, the rebellious commander, and the Nasjah government. And the building where Fraser is staying happens to be the first target for any coup attempt….

‘The Night-Comers’ is a very well-written suspense novel that also says some interesting things about the chaotic world of post-colonialism ca. the early 1950s. The mentality of erstwhile primitive people who suddenly find themselves confronted with the task of governing a nation of differing ethnic and regional groups is communicated with a clarity that could be well studied by legions of doctoral students, and foreign affairs professors, laboring on their own erudite analyses of Third World Liberation:

The first hint of trouble came three days later from the construction department. Captain Emas had attacked and badly beaten-up one of the men working in number three bay of the power house. Questioned about the incident, Captain Emas stated that the man had been insufficiently respectful. The following week two more men were beaten-up by Captain Emas for the same reason. The truth emerged gradually. It appeared that Captain Emas was organizing a construction workers’ union, and that the men who had been beaten-up had shown a disrespectful reluctance to pay dues. The secretary and treasurer of the union was Captain Emas.

Sundanese officials are peculiarly difficult to deal with, particularly if you are an English-speaking European. The first thing you have to realise is that, although they look very spruce and alert and although their shirt pockets glitter with rows of fancy ball-point pens, they have only the haziest notion of their duties.

“…I know these people. Mostly they are quiet and gentle. In the kampongs you will see a boy of twelve run to his mother and suck her breast when he is frightened or hurt. They smile a lot and laugh and seem happy, though they are also sad and afraid. But some are like those madmen nobody knows about, who have devils inside them waiting. And when there are guns to fire and people to kill, the devils come out. I have seen it.”

Of course, in 1956 Ambler had no idea that just nine years later, in 1965-1966, more than 500,000 Indonesians would die in a brutal civil war between the Sukarno government and the Indonesian Communist Party. But he clearly relayed in his fiction a belief that the copious bloodshed associated with the Indonesian war for Independence against the Dutch was not an end, but rather a beginning, of third world revolutionary mayhem. And that Islam, and the desire for an Islamic state, would be a catalyst for violence.

I recommend ‘Night-Comers’ to anyone who is looking for a literate adventure novel, and I’m going to be keeping an eye out for further writings by Eric Ambler.

1 comment:

Secularist said...

I have the book with me having inherited it from my dad
\And yes.. it' a great story of suspense