Thursday, 10 October 2013

Booker shortlist 1969: Figures in a Landscape by Barry England

First published 1969






He placed his enemy in his mind. From the Goon station on the delta, there flowed a steady trickle of three-man patrols, which set out along the valley floor to throw a thin, perpetually shifting barrier across their front. There was also a larger fighting patrol, forty strong, moving freely in the area they were about to cross, between the hillside and the tall fields. But they were well to the left and, given luck, he and Ansell should bypass them altogether. Of course, the chopper was still in the sky behind them, and the net of infantry was drawing closer, but there was nothing he could do about that. The essence of a successful valley crossing was to be seen by no one, uniformed or otherwise. Once committed to a fire fight, they would not survive; the potential build-up of Goon manpower was too great. Given a choice, he would have crossed by night. But there was no choice.


observations: this was one of the books shortlisted for the first Booker Prize in 1969. 

I first read Figures in a Landscape as a teenager, when I was impressionable and far too young. It seared itself into my mind and when I picked it up last week I could have told you exactly what happened in the final pages, in great detail and with dialogue. It was strange to read it again many years later: it was exactly as I remembered, though not the sort of book I usually read any more. It is extremely well-written and compelling.

Two soldiers, prisoners of war, decide to escape. It is never explained where exactly they are, who the enemy is, or what kind of conflict is involved. But it is clear that they are in enemy country, probably in South East Asia, and they are 400 miles from their own people. They have to travel over unfamiliar terrain, and suffer terrible hardships as they do so. The most obvious place for them to be would be Vietnam, and the word Goons supports that. Apparently the book is a classic of escape literature – a genre whose existence I was unaware of. It is very compelling, and Barry England makes it all too easy to imagine the horrors within.

The pair are being hunted by the enemy – they don’t seem particularly important escaped prisoners, and it seems unlikely that the opposition would waste quite so many resources on them. But all reason has long been lost by the time you get about a quarter of the way through: the men are wearing strange clothes, they have shaved off all their body hair, they are being chased by an unrelenting helicopter, and they are carrying their belongings in a suitcase. It is elemental and unreal, but riveting. A worthy and unusual contender for the Booker Prize

At one point the two men discuss Bertillon, and his theory for identifying criminals – Bertillon was a witness in the Dreyfus Affair, and thus turned up in yesterday’s entry on An Officer and a Spy.

The picture, from the Vietnam War, comes from the US National Archives and Records Administration.

6 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, I've had books like that too, that I still remember that clearly, even a very long time after I read them. Interesting isn't it how the kinds of books that are listed for the Booker change (and sometimes don't) over time. Hmmm....as always, food for thought from you, for which thanks.

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    1. Yes isn't it funny? - it isn't always the books you expect to that stick in your mind. And yes, I'm looking at the Booker shortlist and thinking how things change.

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  2. I used to read a lot of stuff from Vietnam a few years ago, Tim O' Brien, Michael Herr, Philip Caputo, Tim Page.......both fiction and non-fiction. Pre-crime reading days. Kind of reminds me of Going After Cacciato, but not too much.

    Escape literature - have you read Rawicz's The Long Walk - well worth a look IMO?

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    1. I was thinking it might be your kind of book. And as I think I've said before, I do like Tim O'Brien. Never heard of Rawicz or his book - will go and look them up.

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  3. Sounds good, sounds intense. And short. I might get it in e-book format.

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    1. Yes, it's all those 3 things! I probably wouldn't have read it again if I hadn't decided to do the Booker Prize thing, but I'm glad I did.

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