Killing Rommel: A Novel, by Steven Pressfield
The hard thing about writing in one genre over and over is that once you get the formula straight, it’s hard to keep things fresh. You keep telling the same story over and over with different characters and events, and your plotting gets all too predictable. Pressfield, clearly in love with the ancient Greek culture, and stupendously knowledgeable about the nature of war and soldiering, decided here to break out of the Greek mold and rush headlong into something a bit more contemporary – World War II.
But to his story: R. Lawrence Chapman, a young British college student, joins the Army in 1939, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. He’s not quite cut from soldierly cloth, but serendipitously, he ends up in the LRDG, Long Range Desert Group, a band of special forces types with the mission of killing Erwin Rommel, arguably Germany’s most capable General of that era.
I won’t spoil the bottom line, but the chase leads from Cairo, Egypt, across North Africa’s sand seas, toward Libya, with an eye out for any opportunity to assassinate Rommel.
Pressfield knows soldiering and he knows battlefields, regardless of varying terrain, era, and circumstance. Soldiering has always been the sort of endeavor to tax one’s physical, emotional, and mental limits, and Chapman, who grows as an officer and combatant as the campaign unfolds, has his share of hard knocks. His men are wounded and mangled, and many die, and Chapman isn’t spared the wounds and privation.
But Pressfield, as always, engages his reader with a literate approach to story. His modus operandi here is a narrator who stands apart from both battlefield and combatants. The son of Chapman’s closest friend obtains a manuscript of Chapman’s, written in British English and its jargon. The manuscript is an amplified sort of diary of Chapman’s campaign experiences, from the time of his enlistment, including some college backstory.
This backstory contains another intriguing bit of plotting: Chapman’s friendship with an older student named Stein – a writer – who mentored Chapman and left him with a copy of a novel manuscript Stein had written, which Chapman eventually publishes following the war.
Pressfield has always been one to portray such history with accuracy and imagination, and this book is no exception. Two moments in the book stand out to this reader.
The first is a chance encounter with Rommel in the desert following Chapman’s rescue of a group of wounded German soldiers. It’s widely accepted that throughout much of the European Theater of WWII, gallantry prevailed on both sides. German soldiers lay beside British in hospitals. Wounded officers were often released following various campaigns. In this episode, Rommel releases Chapman and his men and allows them a lengthy head start before pursuit ensues.
Perhaps the most poignant episode is within the books epilogue, in which members of Chapman’s band show up, after so many years, to attend Chap’s funeral. Our narrator, awed by these men and their roles in Chapman’s stories, remains humbled by the events they took part in and by their devotion to one another.
This is Pressfield’s recurring theme, I think: despite the horror such men are forced into by nationalism, tribalism, ideology, and deranged and ambitious leaders, they manage to retain the essence of their humanity. If there’s any hope for the human race in our time of conflict it’s that we are a resilient, hopeful, and caring people.
My Rating: 4-3/4 of 5 stars
Causes Bob Mustin Supports
Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.