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.