Saturday, April 16, 2016

Eric Ambler's The Night-Comers

Eric Ambler (1909-1998), along with Graham Greene, had started to move the British thriller in a dramatically different direction during the 1930s - towards a much more unglamorous and more realistic style. Instead of wealthy playboy adventurers or professional spies Ambler’s heroes were very ordinary human beings unlucky enough to find themselves caught up in espionage or international intrigue of some sort.

Steven Fraser, the hero of Ambler’s 1956 novel The Night-Comers, falls into this category. He is an English engineer who has spent three years on a dam-building project in the Republic of Sunda. Now his contract has expired and he looks forward to retuning home to England. Unfortunately a few days before he is scheduled to leave a revolution breaks out and through pure bad luck he manages to be right in the middle of it.

A book set in a fictional country will need to provide the reader with some background information. Ambler wisely disposes of this necessity right at the beginning. The short version is that the mostly Moslem Republic of Sunda (which is clearly meant to be Indonesia) has won its independence from the Dutch after being occupied by the Japanese during the war. The new revolutionary government soon discovers that actually governing is a lot more difficult than leading a revolution. Among other things the new government has hundreds of surplus officers who were very useful for a guerilla movement but are an embarrassment and a danger to an actual government. Half the country is in the hands of a rebel army.

Steven Fraser’s big piece of bad luck was borrowing an apartment in the capital from an Australian pilot. The apartment just happens to be in the building that houses the capital’s main radio station (in fact its only radio station). Obviously if a coup were to take place the radio station would be one of the first places the reels would need to capture, and of course that’s what happens. Worse is to come. The rebels agree to spare Fraser’s life is he can repair the generator in the basement for them. He tries to explain that although he is an engineer he’s not that sort of engineer but his explanation falls on deaf ears. He’s just going to have to find a way to repair that generator.

The coup is messy and confused, as such affairs are apt to be. Whether it’s a revolution or a counter-revolution depends on which side you’re on and Steven Fraser would prefer not to be on either side. His situation is complicated by Rosalie, a Eurasian girl with whom he has been so to speak thrown together. She’s in an even more difficult situation, Eurasians being less than popular in Sunda. Steven Fraser doesn’t really owe her anything but he finds that he can’t simply abandon her. In fact it never occurs to him to do so. He’s not a particularly brave man but sometimes you have to do fairly brave things even if you don’t really want to.

Ambler was not especially interested in action. His novels certainly have suspense, often very effective suspense, but action is not the central focus. Ambler is more interested in the reactions of his characters to dangerous and stressful situations and in the relationships between the characters. 

In this novel the key relationship is that between Fraser and Major Suparto. The company building the dam had been forced to employ a number of the surplus ex-officers mentioned earlier. Most of these officers are both corrupt and entirely incompetent, as well as being violent and unpredictable. Major Suparto is a little different. He is efficient and genuinely useful. There is also a grudging respect and even perhaps affection between Fraser and Suparto, based largely on the fact that neither man reacts to the other in the way that the other initially expects him to. Major Suparto is however also ruthless and entirely unsentimental so there is no guarantee that this grudging respect will be enough to keep Steven Fraser alive if his continued survival becomes inconvenient to Major Suparto. And this may well be the case given that Suparto is very much involved in the coup.

There are typical Ambler themes in this story. There’s betrayal and there’s loyalty and it’s not always clear when one ends and the other begins. There are people who believe in things and they can be rather dangerous. There are people who don’t believe in things and sometimes they can be dangerous as well. There are people who know what they’re doing, others who think they know what they’re doing and others who just try to survive.

There are no real heroes or villains. Mostly there are people who do things because they seem like good ideas at the time or they just don’t see any real alternative. 

Ambler takes no particular political position. There are two sides engaged in a civil war and neither side is very admirable, but then neither side is completely contemptible either. Perhaps Major Suparto is right in believing his country was not ready for independence and is not capable of governing itself but that given time perhaps they will learn. In which case all one can really do is to try to ensure that it will be given time. Ambler’s view of the world is brutally realistic. All sorts of ideas are wonderful in theory but real life rarely conforms to our theories. Sometimes the best we can hope to do is to muddle through. If we try to create a perfect world we can end up making things much worse. It’s a realistic view but Ambler is neither cynical nor nihilistic. Sometimes we do manage to muddle through.

There are major racial, cultural and religious tensions in Sunda and Ambler deals with such issues in an even-handed, clear-sighted and unsentimental manner. There is a cultural gap between a European like Steven Fraser and a Sundanese like Major Suparto which makes genuine understanding difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. Steven Fraser accepts that Suparto does not see the world in quite the same way a European sees it. Major Suparto accepts that Steven Fraser does not see the world in quite the same way an Asian sees it. Since they both accept this reality they can at least reach a partial understanding. Rosalie, being half-European and half-Sundanese, might be expected to have the advantage of being able to see both points of view but in practice she’s caught uneasily between two worlds and is at home in neither. 

Ambler’s world is a world of endless shades of grey. It’s not that there’s no right or wrong or no good evil or evil, it’s just that the lines dividing such concepts tend to be rather fuzzy. The people you have to watch out for are the ones who see the world in clear-cut terms of black and white. Ambler’s outlook is by no means as bleak as this might suggest. The various characters in this novel are all very imperfect people but sometimes they surprise you by behaving more nobly or more humanely than you expect.

The Night-Comers is a fine example of the later Ambler style, a complex and absorbing and rather cerebral thriller but still very entertaining. Highly recommended.