Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Eastern Approaches - Fitzroy Maclean [A Review: Of Sorts]

Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches is a fascinating book written by a man who must have been rather interesting to know. The sort of man that since the end of major conflict and empire would now be limited to exploration of the world's wilder regions.

I will firstly digress a little to castigate whoever it was at Penguin that decided to package up this 2009 edition as if the book were a Chris Ryan SASfest. This book is so much better and deeper than that it deserves to be treated with a little more respect.

Yes, this is a book about World War Two and yes, the SAS feature in it, including David Stirling himself. But that's only one third of the book. It's like Penguin felt they had to have as obvious a cover as possible but I suspect if you bought this book with that expectation you might be a little disappointed. Particularly as the first third focuses on Maclean's time in the Soviet Union as a Foreign Office bod from 1937-39 and the travels he undertook whilst there to the central Asian republics.

In fact the first third is a fascinating travelogue which makes you want to visit some of the places mentioned - Samarkand, Tashkent, Alma Ata and others - but which also makes you wonder how different they are 70+ years later. How much of the traditional areas survive now? These places are all in the forgotten or unknown parts of the former Soviet Union. The places that we only generally know because England get drawn against them in World Cup or European Championship qualifiers. Even at the time Maclean was writing he already noted the impinging architecture of modern Soviet Russia on some of these places. But at least this book makes you want to go and see. There's an element of the thriller about this section as Maclean tries to visit places that he's not really supposed to go and visit. There are a number of obvious NKVD goons trailing him, sometimes to their own disappointment.

This first third also contains a rather brilliant chapter* on the 1938 Show Trials in Moscow, which combines narrative power with some fascinating analysis. For that chapter alone I'd recommend this book as it gives you a real taste of the atmosphere of Moscow at the time and the trial itself as well as giving interesting portraits of those on trial and those doing the trying. It's interesting to see Vishinky at work for example before he ends up as the Chief Russian Judge at the Nuremberg Trails.

That section ends when war breaks out. Maclean is keen to serve but the Foreign Office aren't keen to let him go. So he discovers that if he stands as an MP he can resign from the Foreign Office. This he does - being elected MP for Lancaster in a 1941 by-election - before joining the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. From there he goes to North Africa when the second section of the book begins and keen to be involved he joins the SAS. This part again is well-told. There's a phlegmatic air about the whole thing with Maclean playing down his own courage often. This isn't a man you feel is keen to steal the limelight from others. Included in this section is his role in the kidnapping of General Zahedi, commander of the Persian forces in the Isfahan area who the British fear is being 'tapped up' by the Nazi's.

The final section is his time in Yugoslavia - or Jugoslavia as it is in the book - where from 1943 he served as liaison officer to Tito's partisans. He was originally dropped in there to judge whether Tito was worthy of support as the British felt that that General Mihailović and his Chetniks were failing to persecute the Germans with sufficient vigor. It was Maclean's reports that led to Allied support switching to Tito and his Partisans, despite their communism. Maclean's book makes it pretty clear that Churchill was more bothered about who could do the most damage to the Germans than who had the right political connections.

Yugoslavia is one of the areas of World War Two where my knowledge is a little scant so I found this whole section fascinating and Tito is a figure about whom I know little too. Maclean seems to get on well with Tito and his men, which might be surprising considering his background and experiences, but like Churchill he was focused on helping defeat the Germans. It certainly seems you can see the seeds of Tito's independence from the Soviet Union here, although the book ends with Maclean worried about what might happen post-victory.

Sir Fitzroy Maclean died in 1996 and you wonder what he would have made of the implosion of post-Tito, post-Communist Yugoslavia.

Eastern Approaches is well-written, interesting and tense it tells a story that might - in other hands - have become rather melodramatic. Maclean's war was a fascinating and tense one. There's no flinching from what war means in this book but there's a realistic matter-of-factedness about the whole thing that comes from a man who was really there. It has a certain understated power that fictional writers of war might do well to copy.

It makes me want to find out more about the war in Yugoslavia, about Maclean himself and perhaps best of all it makes me want to see what the places he saw now look like. If you can do that in a book then you've succeeded.


*Chapter VII, Winter In Moscow

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