A Sailor of Austria: a novel / John Biggins. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 369 p. Available from Amazon.com (Kindle, $7.69) and Barnes & Noble (Nook, $8.99).
It is unusual for me to review a novel, and far rarer to review any book more than 20 years after its publication, but A Sailor of Austria is remarkable enough to become exceptions to both. I came across the title while doing a search through Amazon.com, looking for hints of forthcoming books on the Great War. Somehow, a novel by John Biggins popped up. A quick scan of the Amazon description made it sound like a Flashman-type novel set in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Navy; I was in the mood for a fun novel, after so much recent reading of serious histories of the war, so I bought it.
A quick aside about Flashman, in case you don’t know the character: The great screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser, who was also a veteran of the Second World War (both as an enlisted man and officer), wrote a series of wildly funny novels based on the career of the Victorian British officer, Harry Flashman. A cynical, greedy, untrustworthy, whoring coward, Flashman still nonetheless managed to come out on top of every horrible situation in which he found himself. In the course of a career of trying to avoid any danger whatsoever, he continued to gather medals (including the V.C.), honors (a knighthood), wealth (mostly loot) and the favors of any woman he could seduce. Still, Fraser makes all of Flashman’s adventures so engaging that they are the type of novels that make you laugh out loud. In addition, Fraser provides detailed footnotes placing all of these events in very real historical context. Wonderful books; if you haven’t read them, you should.
Back to Biggins. The set-up was familiar: A very elderly man begins to record his life, particularly during the Great War, with the honesty and bluntness that is the hallmark of those near the century mark. It soon became apparent, however, that Otto Prohaska, young captain of a submarine, no less, was not patterned after Flashman, after all. Rather than being a poltroon and a coward, Prohaska is a very likeable character. He is slightly cynical, of course, in the way of young men (and particularly young officers) everywhere, but he does his duty to the best of his ability, takes care of his crew and fulfills his missions within the limits of the situations in which he finds himself.
Moreover, the novel shows the details, from the inside, of what being an officer in the Imperial Navy during the Great War must have been like: the politics (particularly the balance of power with Germany), the technology (can you imagine commanding a submarine in 1914?), the ridiculous bureaucracy of a rigid, yet crumbling empire (a staff officer describing the long-term plans of the Empire, “So, by 1960, we shall be in a position to…”) and the extraordinary mix of ethnic groups that made up the Empire and its military. By the end of the book, I had come to thoroughly like young Prohaska and understand the Austro-Hungarian Empire much more clearly. I was not surprised to later read, in Biggins’ on-line biography, that he did his graduate studies in Soviet-bloc Poland from 1968 to 1971, where, he writes, he gained “an enduring fascination with institutional dysfunction and the pathology of decaying empires.” Fortunately, Biggins has written three more novels in this series, and I will certainly buy and read all of them. The titles alone are so intriguing, how could I not:
The Emperor’s coloured coat: in which Otto Prohaska, Hero of the Habsburg Empire, has an interesting time while not quite managing to avert the First World War. Amazon.com (Kindle, $7.69) and Barnes & Noble (Nook, $8.99)
The two-headed eagle: in which Otto Prohaska takes a break on the Habsburg Empire’s leading U-boat ace and does something even more thanklessly dangerous. Amazon.com (Kindle, $7.69) and Barnes & Noble (Nook, $8.99)
Tomorrow the world: in which Cadet Otto Prohaska carries the Habsburg Empire’s civilizing mission to the entirely unreceptive people of Africa and Oceania. Amazon.com (Kindle, $7.69) and Barnes & Noble (Nook, $8.99)