Whenever a new novel by Tim Pears appears I always get hold of it as soon as I can. Ever since his 1993 novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves I have never failed to be impressed by the quality of his writing and the inventiveness of his story lines. I have only reviewed a couple of his books on this site, the last one being Landed, but if I had the time I would revisit In a Land of Plenty and A Revolution of the Sun and add to the many glowing reviews of these fine novels.
In In The Light of the Morning Tim Pears has turned his mind to the Second World War, and in particular the battles in the Balkans where the Nazi invasion of former-Yugoslavia was sternly resisted by bands of Partisans. I have tried to give a flavour of the book in this article without spoiling it for anyone who eventually reads it.
The book opens in the early summer, 1944 with three British soldiers flying over Slovenia about to be dropped by parachute into a forest; their task to bring aid and assistance to the many Yugoslavian Partisans who are defending the eastern part of their country against the invading Germans. Lieutenant Tom Friedman is our focus – a young academic, convinced of the vital nature of his task, but already missing his book-lined rooms and the quiet life of Oxford.
Tom is accompanied by a belligerent Major, Jack Farwell who has taken an instant dislike to Tom, “I’m sure you don’t like me any more than I like you. . . you’re not a man’s man . . . you don’t say enough, that must be what it is”. Their other companion is a far more amenable radio operator, Corporal Sid Dixon, a farm-worker from Devon who has become a master of the airwaves.
The parachute drop goes well. The supplies that accompanied them are carted off in farm wagons and the men are guided away from the drop site by a group of Partisans who celebrate their arrival with vodka and toasts, “To Tito! To Churchill!”. After a night in a peasant house, they are led off into the beautiful Slovenian forests, climbing ever higher as their guides lead them past remote hamlets and fields of orchids.
Again they climb, into wooded hills, the ground is chalk and flint beneath their aching feet and the trees are beech now. Once, they pass a tiny stone forester’s hut, like the home of a troll. The smooth younger beech trunks reach from the earth like the slender limbs of young women, as if this were a place in nature where vegetable aspired to animal.
The men find themselves in the hands of a Partisan Major, Jovan Vascovič who tells them of the need for more medical supplies. Their main task is to radio British bases and arrange for drops of food, medicine and military equipment so that the Partisans have what they need to prosecute the battles against the Nazis. Major Jack on the other hand wants to see some action by storming off into Nazi-occupied areas to disrupt their supply routes with explosives and guerilla attacks.
The trek through the mountains continues, with the party eventually reaching Partisan Headquarters where a planning meeting agrees that Major Jack will go off to attack a tunnel to the south, while Tom and Sid accompany another group to head north to attack a viaduct. Now he is freed from the bullying of Major Jack, Tom finds himself much more integrated with the group of Partisans, led by Jovan, with whom he forms a strong relationship. They are also accompanied by a female Partisan, Marija, a charismatic woman who has suffered much in the war and has become a female warrior equally determined to inflict damage on the German lines as any of the men.
The march becomes far more threatening from now on, with bands of Fascists on the look-out for the Partisans and a suspicious peasantry turning their backs on the group as they pass by their farmsteads. Tim Pears’ writing takes on an almost lyrical tone as he describes the route-marches through the forests and mountains.
How a Partisan loves the mist our of which and into which he comes and goes, a deadly ghost. How he loves the fog that muffles his approach, the dusk into which he retreats, the falling rain that covers his tracks. Then nature at her most spiteful becomes a comrade in his righteous acts.
There is a very human story within the excitement and dangers that the band of Partisans face as they travel on. Tom has to work through some complex personal issues as he becomes closer to Jovan and Marija. They themselves are complex people, Jovan with a ruthlessness born from his years of struggle as a communist agitator, and Marija with her own losses which perhaps can be comforted in the company of this striking British soldier. Tom has a strong Christian faith, and reads a New Testament as he travels, but will his faith remain strong as he sees and hears dreadful evidence of man’s brutality in the hills of Slovenia?
They stretch out their oilskins by the ruins of an old building. Despite his fatigue, Tom does not fall asleep, even as the day grows brighter. Did Christ come, he wonders, to remind men that they have free will, or that they do not? And if they do, is worth it, this freedom, for the acts of evil they commit. What God would think so?
Tom’s faith wanes but there is evidence to come of a spiritual vision born of maturity, to replace the childish faith he carried with him at the start of his journey.
The book unfolds with some remarkably well-written set-pieces. Relationships are clarified, enemy (and allied) plots are uncovered and the inevitable conflict eventually occurs with a great disruption to souls and bodies. I hope I have given a flavour of this novel. In addition to the enjoyment of the story, I am also confident that reading is has taught me much about the land of Slovenia for Tim Pears has provided a long list of sources at the back of the book which shows the depth of the learning behind the story. A useful map is provided showing the route of the long marches through the mountains of Slovenia and you will probably be like me in wanting to fire up Google Earth to see the broader context of the geography.
For a more up to date view of Slovenia you may be interested in New Europe Writer’s book, Lubjana Tales which contains many items of fiction from the modern Slovenian capital.