Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: The Winds of War

First published in 1971, The Winds of War is aptly described on the cover as `another splendid epic' as well as being compared to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. Although such fulsome praise has often been used to describe various tomes, this book deserves such high praise. It is actually the prologue to Wouk's War and Remembrance, and (my tattered old edition) is a 960-pager at that! If you are looking for something that seems to have died out recently, namely, a good old-fashioned read or a solid story, then this is it. Despite being written over forty years ago, there is no sense of being dated, albeit some of the expressions might come across as quaint. The story concerns two families, one Jewish and European, the Jastrows, and the other American and WASP, namely the Henrys. Looming behind the tapestry of lives and loves interlinking is the horrific menace of World War 2. The author is truly a gifted writer in that tackling a subject as monumental as a world war and trying to humanise both friends and foes is daunting. However, this book is superbly written and keeps the reader glued to the pages. Each character brings a unique angle to this novel, even those historical personalities usually relegated to the pages of history books. The stubbornness of elderly academic Aaron Jastrow, who remains in Italy despite the imminent threat of Fascism and Mussolini's pact with Hitler, drags his niece, the strong-willed and beautiful Natalie Jastrow, right into the fray. Pug Henry, a middle-aged US Naval officer, is dismayed to find his youngest son Byron not only gets involved with Natalie, but marries her. When war breaks out she is stranded in war-torn Europe with her cantankerous uncle and a new-born babe. Pug has his own problems with a beautiful but bored and dissatisfied wife (Rhoda) who feels her husband has not achieved the career she had in mind for him. On an observer mission to Europe, Pug himself finds himself attracted to a girl old enough to be his daughter.

These human conflicts are somehow always uppermost in a story that never succumbs to the weightier issues of war and destruction. I enjoyed the way in which the author deftly creates an intimate viewpoint of the three pivotal characters of the war: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Hitler himself by having Pug Henry at different stages of the novel actually meet and interact with these men. Another interesting angle is Pug's analysis of General Armin van Roon's (fictional) account of the war and the motives and machinations behind Hitler's various invasions and instances of both brilliance and bungling ineptitude. The author also provides a perceptive analysis of the psyche of the nations dragged into the war, and this is a great help in understanding how and why so many people entered into and supported their leaders in what could only be the greatest folly of the century. The book cannot, of course, adequately describe the unspeakable horror of the bombings, the dreadful atrocities perpetrated in the death camps, and many more occasions of wholesale slaughter, but the author does an excellent job of describing these events without sinking into a mire of sentimentality or a ghoulish litany. The book ends as Pearl Harbour is bombed, thus bringing the USA into a war that FD had successfully avoided in an effort to appease the war-shy American public. The bombing of Pearl Harbour, a momentous blunder on the part of Japan propelled the American giant into the war with a unanimous vote (bar one). This is a truly satisfying experience for the readers who want to sink their literary teeth into something solid!