November 21, 2007

Historical Novels Review of Tomorrow the World

From the Historical Novels Review's November '07 issue:

I’d heard raves about John Biggins’s novels set in the last fifty
years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now I understand why. If you enjoy an
author who writes with authority (like Michael Pearce, and with the same
depth of knowledge and dry wit), and who has the outsider’s eye for noticing
and observing, then Biggins is for you.
Tomorrow the World shows young Otto Prohaska becoming Cadet
Prohaska, in what is left of the Hapsburg Empire’s navy. The joy of the book
is that it is not a young man’s voice retelling his adventures, but Otto,
the old man, waiting to die in the strange Welsh retirement home for Polish
refugees, run by Polish nuns. He records his stories, with comments and
critical asides added by the older Otto’s hindsight and later analysis. The
result is often hilarious, always devastatingly acute. One despairs and
wonders, as he does, if humans will ever learn from past mistakes. As a
record of what happened to turn Germany into the bigot of white supremacy
that resulted in Auschwitz, it is horrifying.
The sailing details of S.M.S Windischgratz, the descriptions of
people and places, are so vivid you come to believe you are indeed reading
memoirs. I stand in awe, not only of Biggins’s research, but also his
ability to turn it into something so tangible. His skills as a writer are
one of the pleasures of this novel.
If Otto has a creed, it is “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” and
the novel gives us both comic and pathetic examples as a hapless Cadet Otto
sails on the weird and wonderful voyage from Pola (now Pula, Croatia)
ostensibly to the South Atlantic, but eventually to Africa, New Silesia and
across the Indian Ocean to Pola again. Enjoy it. It’s a book to cherish and
reread. -- Patrika Salmon

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