Wednesday, 3 May 2000

Guy Wheeler: Cato's War (1974)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 489

A rather disappointing realisation of quite an unusual idea, Cato's War seeks to provide a different viewpoint of the American War of Independence than is usually told, either in fiction or non-fiction. As Wheeler points out, British writers have tended to ignore the war totally, while Americans want to mythologise it, to pretend (for example) that none of the colonists fought for the British and, even more, that the groups of bandits looting from both sides did not exist.

Wheeler's novel follows one Colonel Cato, sent out to join General Cornwallis with the objective suggested by the commander of British forces, General Clinton, of raising a militia of loyalists in Virginia. The real reason that Clinton wants another officer from London is so that he can have a spy on Cornwallis, whom he does not trust, but Cato refuses to do this. This situation is part of Wheeler's thesis, which is that the war was brought about by stupidity in London and lost by the British through incompetence and division in their command. This is perhaps a reasonable analysis of the situation, but it is probably far easier to see in retrospect than was at all clear at the time (despite the words - which really amount to political speeches, often at rather unlikely moments - put into the mouths of several characters).

The preachy dialogue is one of several unconvincing aspects of Cato's War. Others include non-characters - different people are hardly differentiated from each other, with the exception of the brutal deserter Cook - and a far too sketchily realised historical background. (This includes such anachronisms as a 1970s reaction to adultery - accepted by all and even welcomed by the woman's relations.) The novel never really succeeds as a novel, and is one of those whose ideas are much more interesting than any other aspect.

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