My paternal great-grandfather was a member of the K.u.k. Kriegsmarine, and had once to swim ashore when his ship sank in the Adriatic Sea, hence I was looking forward to reading A Sailor of Austria; especially so, since the book had been compared to George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels.
Unsurprisingly it doesn’t really come close to the quality of Flashman, but then nothing really does.
I thought the first half of this novel was rather excellent. John Biggins is a fine story-teller who knows how to keep the reader’s attention. Unfortunately the plot derails relatively early by going off in directions which are not particularly interesting.
As long as the author sticks to what he knows or has extensively researched, naval warfare, the living conditions on submarines, the sorry state of the monarchy’s naval fleet, the book is interesting and even educational.
But once our hero steps on land, ironically the author finds himself on far shakier ground. By trying to make sense of early 20th century Austro-Hungarian politics he ends up simplifying things. Of course it would be an almost superhuman task to tell the story of a country with so many different ethnicities, some of which became mortal enemies in the aftermath of the war, in an objective way. Whom are you going to trust? The Hungarians? The Austrians? The Croatians? The Serbs? The Romanians? They all have their own take of this particular time in history, painting themselves as noble heroes or tragic victims, sometimes exaggerating the wickedness of their antagonists to absurd heights.
And yet even taking into account that the author is an outsider, sometimes this lack of objectivity is almost insulting. Mr. Biggins’ depiction of Transylvanian nobility is so ridiculous it could have come out of Stoker’s Dracula. I sensed a certain left-wing sentiment throughout, since most aristocrats here are depicted as either pompous fools or reactionary morons.
I wish this book would have come with extensive footnotes like the Flashman novels or at least an afterword illuminating how many of the characters and events depicted here were real and most of all what sources Mr Biggins used.
Being as it is, this is a witty and at times even laugh-out-loud funny yarn, but also ultimately rather shallow and not a particularly accurate history lesson.