Kraut-loving deepens storytelling in The African Queen

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A memorable feature of The African Queen - now three weeks after I've finished it - is C.S. Forester's empathy for the Germans.  Early on in the story, Forester highlights one of his heroine's few flaws by emphasizing her lack of compassion for the German military predicament:

     [N]aturally [Rose] could not see the other side of the question.  Von Hanneken, with no more than five hundred white men in a colony people by a million Negroes, of whom not more than a few thousand even knew they were subjects of the German flag, had to face the task of defending German Central Africa against the attacks of the overwhelming forces which would instantly be directed upon him.  It was his duty to fight tot he bitter end, to keep occupied as many of the enemy as possible for as long as possible, and to die in the last ditch, if necessary, while the real decision was being fought out in France. Thanks to the British command of the sea, he could expect no help whatever from outside. . . .
     Rose saw no excuse for him at all.

p. 8-9.  Later, when The African Queen squeaks by the German troops stationed at Shona, on the last stretch of river before the rapids, C.S. Forester endows the German commander with a complex range of reactions:

[The captain of the reserve] stood staring down between the cliffs for a long minute.  Von Hanneken would be furious at the news of the loss of [The African Queen], but what more could he have done?  He could not justly be expected to have foreseen this.  No one in his senses would have taken a steam launch into the cataract, and a reserve officer's training does not teach a man to guard against cases of insanity.
. . . .
As he walked back to Shona, bathed in sweat, he was still undecided whether he should make any mention of this incident in his report to Von Hanneken. . . . It might be better to keep quiet.  The [African Queen] was gone, and the poor devils in it were dead. . . . But he was sorry for the poor devils, all the same. 

p. 85-86.  And in the tale's dramatic conclusion, the Germans "[p]retty decent[ly]" bring Rose and Charlie Allnut over to the British side of Lake Tanganyika - in a move that has "a touch of the formal chivalry of the Napoleonic wars" (p. 233-234) - before the British finally sink the German ship, Königin Luise, in a maneuver that sees the British "not want[ing] to kill the wretched Germans" and the Germans gallantly going down with the ship.  (p. 241-242.)

C.S. Forester's notable and humanizing depiction of Germans prompted a number of questions for me:  First, I wondered if C.S. Forester was taking any political risks by offering so three dimensional a glimpse of his German characters.  WWI - and the use of mustard gas - was still fresh in the minds of the British public, and Hitler was already in power by the time to book was published.  His good-natured approach to the enemy could have cost him readers.

Second, I wondered if, even if he'd perceived the political risk, C.S. Forester would have cared.  In his criticism of Rose's inability to relate to the German military predicament, I perceived that C.S. Forester was gently contrasting her with himself; his characters may be privileged to be narrow minded, but the author can afford no such luxury.  In that case, his discharging of his authorial duty seems tinged with bravery.

Finally, I wondered if his empathy was an expression of a longing for a romantic, chivalrous (imagined) golden age - an idealistic hope that if he could conjure a civilized conflict on the page, readers might be inspired to live it out in the real world.  If so, a rich irony exists in the fact that Rose and Charlie Allnut - the patriotic, intrepid, salt-of-the-earth lovers - planned to destroy the Königin Luise in a suicide bombing.

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on September 12, 2009 1:30 AM.

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