Friday, November 26, 2010

63. O.G.P.U. Prison by Sven Hassel

I had the good fortune as a young man to spend three weeks on a cattle ranch in Brazil, basically working with the cowboys (though more likely getting in their way). The manager of the farm was a crusty old Brit and he learned me three things: 1) how to shovel, 2) that two non-gay men cannot live together in close quarters for extended periods of time and 3) Sven Hassel wrote great books about war.

I found one of his books, Monte Casino, immediately after that. But for some reason it sat on my shelf for years and I never found the desire to open it up. My understanding was that Sven Hasssel's book were incessantly grim and violent. I have always been a bit squeamish, but I think the other thing that made me hesitate was the sheer width of the book and a language that didn't grab me. Eventually I got rid of Monte Casino, but when I was in Amsterdam, I found this one for a really cheap price and thought it was high time to introduce myself to Sven Hassel.

Unfortunately, I have since learned that O.G.P.U. Prison is one of his later books and veers more into the black comedy and less into the grimness and is perhaps not the best representation of the series. I say unfortunately, because I really do want to get a better understanding of the series, but this book was kind of a slog. A fascinating, crazy slog, but still quite long and repetitive.

I apologize for dancing around the actual description of the book, but it's hard! It's like the Threepenny Opera mixed with Sergeant Rock (as directed by Sam Peckinpah or one of those Japanese gore-masters) and starring the Marx Brothers. What makes Sven Hassel stand out is that his books are written from the German perspective. The heroes are utterly cynical, war-mad and basically criminals forced into being soldiers. But they are excellent soldiers, basically immortal and constantly killing (during the war scenes). But it's super goofy! The book opens in Berlin, where the heroes are ordered to transport some prisoners. They go into bar after bar and chaos ensues at each place. Then they are sent off to the front to try and take this Russian prison that sits strategically at the top of a hill. It's a total gorefest, but weirdly disjointed and lacking flow. Part of it could have been the translation, but as a reader you jump from violent war scene to violent war scene. At times it happens so abruptly that you don't even realize the heroes have moved to a new situation. A lot of the language is passive or just colourful descriptions of gore (soldiers missing heads, missing legs, legs only, guts hanging out). It goes on and on. It's basically gorewarporn, but all with this ultra-violent humour and ironic awareness of the insanity of war. It felt at times very similar to playing a video game.

It has a certain hypnotic flow and there is some truly crazy stuff in here. But there is so much of it and it is often quite goofy, that I just felt removed from the story most of the time. It also bothered me that the heroes seemed utterly impervious to damage. People are getting slaughtered all around them and the worse they get are scrapes or bullet holes that go straight through but do no real damage. They also always have time to make clever comments and jibes to each other back and forth. It's all very surreal.

If it was less goofy and flowed a bit better, I think it could have been really awesome, truly dark and destructive. I read in a few places that the earlier novels are a bit less crazy, but I wonder how much. I say it was a slog, but it also gave me a certain hankering. Maybe one day I will pick up one of the earlier novels and see how it goes.

Just to give you an idea of the goofiness I am talking about here, is a moment from a scene in a German planning session near the Russian front.

...One of the lamps hisses and crackles loudly.
The General looks at it wickedly.
'Make that lamp shut up,' he shouts, red in the face with rage.
A Signals Unteroffizier tries nervously to adjust the burner, but the lamp continues to splutter. It is as if it has decided to tease the general.
The Unteroffizier burns his fingers, but is wise enough not to show it.
'Take that lamp away! Out with it!' roars the General, in a hoarse voice.
The Unteroffizier grabs the lamp, and rushes out of the black-out tunnel.
At the same time comes the roar of exploding bombs. The Signal Unteroffizier and the lamp come flying back through the tunnel in a rain of glass shards, strips of flesh and brickwork.
'Damned mess,' snarls the General, angrily. 'Clean it up and let's get on with it!'
Planning for the grand attack is resumed immediately. The bombing and the dead Unteroffizier apparently of no interest whatsoever. A couple of soldiers rapidly clear up the remains.

Does that not seem like a very violent Marx Bros. movie? Now imagine that like three or four times per page.

Sven Hassel himself is also an interesting guy. He claims to have been an SS soldier and he was definitely around during the war, but there is another Danish journalist who has dedicated his life to proving that Hassel is a fraud. The war rages on the internet.

I think these book are interesting and that you should read at least one if you are a student of paperback books and manly fiction. I'd love to hear some other people's opinions, especially those who have read more of the books.

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