IN the film Ice Cold in Alex, two World War 2 British soldiers, two nurses and a suspicious German-speaking South African, endeavour to cross the North African desert in an ambulance to reach British lines in Alexandria.
The bulk of the film, based on a novel by Christopher Lanson, is taken up with the difficulties of the terrain, the menace of Rommel's Afrika Corps and, not least, the human struggles of the people in the vehicle.
I was reminded of the film as I read the opening chapters of Robert Allison's first novel The Letter Bearer. A badly injured British soldier - seemingly a motorcycle messenger - lies dying in a North African desert. The Italian mine that blew him up, wrecking his machine and damaging his lungs, also knocked out of him all knowledge of who he was. A satchel of letters lies nearby.
The rider, as he is called, is picked up by four British Army deserters and an Italian POW. They live in a makeshift camp, living on the rations rescued from a wrecked supply vehicle. Opinion is divided about the best thing to do. The year is 1942. An attack on the camp by an Italian aircraft results in the men crossing the desert to make for coastal mountains.
The three parts of this short book - 259 pages - reflect the changing circumstances of this unlikely band of brothers as they squabble their way across the landscape, occasionally coming across the detritus of war - corpses, wrecked vehicles, damaged tanks. Part of the journey is made in a patched up American M3 Grant tank.
These episodes are linked by the Rider's attempt to remember who he is - at one point he says he thinks he may have been a tank officer. He tries to work out his identity by reading the letters in his satchel, the correspondence of five soldiers and their wives or sweethearts.
This is a artfully crafted book, as you would expect a Granta publication to be, with passages of action and punchy dialogue interspersed with metaphysical ruminative reflections that recalls Albert Camus:-
"He looks and looks again, the entire scene tumbling into dust. Fool, to presume certainty in so nascent a universe, all acts of creation probationary. An anecdote passed between friends haphazardly built upon, a wish fulfilled by proxy. All these stories and names ventured into, turned now into traps."
What seems like a literary attempt to sculpt a lean philosophical fable about identity, intention and betrayal from a handful of characters in a place of sand, stone and dust is supercharged by a bolt of lightning on page 181 when the Rider does something shocking and seemingly out of character.
Robert Allison doesn't look old enough to have experienced war. Then again, when has age ever been a qualification for war experience? Our collective consciousness is saturated with images of killing, suffering and endurance. Enduring the unendurable is a twentieth century legacy visible in the 21st faces of Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan.
I don't suppose this book will make much of an impact outside small literary circles unless it wins a prize. It should, I think. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, An English Patient and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are evidence of what may be achieved.