“Many a time since I’ve wondered if, all at once, and for the first time in his life, he knew that class and rank don’t mean a thing when the cards are down.”
I enjoyed A Month in the Country very much and decided to seek out other novels from J.L. Carr. A Season In Sinji, which almost sounds like a companion novel, is a completely different read, yet the two novels have shared themes: the hell of war, of course, but also companionship between males, and (the price of) survival. A Month in the Country explores the joys and pain of life through a horribly disfigured WWI veteran who retreats to the countryside to restore a medieval mural. A Season in Sinji is set in WWII and is basically the story of three men who vie for the same woman, and then later find themselves in West Africa.
The novel, is narrated by Yorkshire native, Flanders, a man whose farming background and strict religious upbringing forge his strong character. Flanders tells his tale in hindsight, and it’s clear that while Flanders survived the war, that this survival comes with a price. Flanders volunteered to fight and quickly became friends with Wakerly saying “we were more than mates; he could have been a brother. I shall never forget him. Though I let him down in the end.”
Whereas Wakerly and Flanders have an instant rapport, they both intensely dislike Turton, who is an excellent photographer with an “absolute unquestioning superiority.” At first ‘war’ is boredom with the men stuck at an RAF camp watching others shipped out. To kill time, Wakerly and Flanders begin hanging at the local pub where they meet Caroline, whose parents have been killed in a London air raid. Wakerly courts Caroline (with Flanders as an awkward third). Turton, the most aggressive male of the three men, spots Caroline. Armed with his “utter confidence” he simply takes over, and that would appear to be the end of the episode with Caroline.
Flanders and Wakerly are posted to RAF Sinji in West Africa, “the edge of war,” and it’s on the journey that things begin to unravel. Then Turton arrives, now an officer, and begins to make life hell for Flanders and Wakerly.
And that’s another thing about Africa; it’s never still. There’s always bumping and rustling, birds screaming, and the stir of millions of insects groping around. And feet. Feet padding softly past. The blacks sleep in shifts; they don’t keep regular hours like us, so there’s always someone stirring and watching. It became an obsession with me the longer I stayed there. Everybody had obsessions before they left The Coast. Even the biggest clods began to do crazy things like drawing birds in the sand and the ones with better educations usually cracked completely, and began feeding them. My two obsessions were the sound of feet running, and all the places that went on and on east of us, beyond the tropic rain forests on the other side of the mountains, right across the dry lakes and the deserts to Addis Ababa, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, all full of people who slept in shifts stirring and watching and running around in darkness.
The narrator’s point, in the above quote is that Africa ‘does’ things to the British RAF personnel sent there, and that the educated/upper class are perhaps the worst off. According to Flanders: “Africa either put you flat on your back or else brought out the very devil in you.” Sinji is nothing more than “three beads strung along a gravel road”–some rapidly constructed ‘buildings’ for the men, but there’s simply nowhere to go, nothing to do. The men, however, find that their pay takes them far with the local women–much to Flanders’ disgust. But other men get their entertainment from harassing those they work with and those with lower rank. Turton, in particular, begins a campaign of psychological warfare against Flanders and Wakerly, making their lives living hell.
The nature of war throws various types together who would not cross paths in peacetime, and class plays a huge role here. Concentrating on just a handful of men, Carr examines personality clashes in close quarters, throwing rank in as a weapon in human pathology. One of the great personalities here is ‘the Birdman’
He knew so much that I switched off whenever he began to reel off lists of birds he was looking forward to seeing–the ibis, the calliope humming-bird, the flamingo…His wife probably was missing him in bed and the garden, but I bet she wasn’t sorry to be having a break from the birds.
The other spring of wisdom was a medical orderly known as Blubber, who looked like a dropsical Eskimo and who was a sex fiend. He was at the other end of the boredom scale–just vulgar. The Birdman and he just grated against each other–their birds were not of the same feather.
There’s a pivotal incident that takes place involving the natives which raises certain moral questions. Wakerly and Flanders find themselves disagreeing with each other. Wakerly wants to take a stand and damn the consequences while Flanders differs:
I’ll wait for the right time before I settle with Turton and, when it does come, I’ll choose it and the place and only when I’m sure of winning.
Through Flanders’ eyes we see how these British men cope at RAF Sinji. Some men fall apart and some rise to the occasion. There’s one man, Glapthorn, who Flanders considers a poor excuse for a human being, but even Glapthorn generates some empathy in the end. While Wakerly and Flanders drift apart due to moral differences, Flanders becomes friendly with Slingsby, a fellow Northerner with similar moral values.
Two final notes: Flanders has a strong distaste for homosexuals which permeates some of his relationships. Cricket plays a large role in the book, and those who like the game will probably appreciate the many cricket references.
On the cover of my edition there’s a quote “The best of J.L. Carr’s novels.” It’s certainly strong and memorable. Plus bleak which I always like. A Month in the Country includes the theme of healing from war. There’s no healing in A Season in Sinji.