Thursday, 18 March 2004

Len Deighton: Declarations of War (1971)

Edition: Panther, 1973 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1229

This collection of short stories is the only one published by Deighton; I don't know of other, uncollected tales, so this seems to be something of an experiment in his output (as were several other books he published in the early seventies). As the title suggests, they are all war stories, though all of them have something a little unusual about them. The little twists include such ideas as having a story of air combat in the First World War, very much apparently in the style of W.E. Johns, turn out to be about the Germans. (This particular trick is repeated in another story as well, with the added element that student unrest in the thirties is used to evoke the student agitation of the late sixties.)

The stories are all very short, and they are constructed so that the twist is the most important aspect of every one of them (something more commonly considered a feature of science fiction than other genres - though writers like Frederick Forsyth do this frequently in the thriller). All that most of the stories do is set up the situation, then reveal the twist. This makes them a little short of space for characterisation and so they are filled with stereotypes.

The best story in the collection is the first one, It Must Have Been Two Other Fellows, which has a premise rather similar to the song I Remember It Well. Two men meet in a garage where one is working on his car in his spare time after the Second World War, and they recognise each other - they were together in a tank action in North Africa. Or were they? As they reminisce about it, it becomes clear that their memories of what happened are mutually contradictory. So the reader is left guessing whether they are remembering different, yet similar, events, their mutual recognition being a mistake; or whether the War was a time that neither remembers clearly, even its most exciting moments.

Generally, though, these stories are fun to read once and individually. They do pall a bit read all in one go, even though, as no prior publication details are given, the assumption is that they were intended to form part of this collection from their conception. They are too similar to feel inventive to anyone who reads all the way through, and I was left, as someone who has now read them twice, feeling that Deighton is a novelist trying a little too hard at the unfamiliar craft of short story writing.

1 comment:

Harish Ragunathan said...

I have just bought this book. From what I read in your review, the book seems more enticing. Thank you.