Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

A Sailor of Austria

Biggins, John

1994, St. Martin's Press, New York
ISBN 0312105347
369 pages

Type. Novel

This is a great novel about the U-boat fleet of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The narrator is a 100-year-old former commander of one such U-boat, who is spurred to dictate his memories of the war when fate reunites him with his photograph album which he had not seen for more than half a century. Compelled by the memories this brings back, and after realizing the general public's ignorance of the existence or actions of the k.u.k., he decides to dictate his memoirs.

Besides his many hair-raising adventures, first on petrol-powered, then diesel U-boats, mostly in the Adriatic, off the wild coasts of Albania, and on secret mission to the Sahara, after which he successfully transports a racing camel as a gift from the Senussi headman to the Emperor, the novel's narrator also provides much detail about life in the declining days of the Empire. He explains that it was not a country but a dynasty, and describes the multilingual crews that made up the k.u.k. and the system of petty nobility. Some of the most powerful scenes occur ashore, in the mountains of Transylvania at the crumbling estate of his fiancee's foster parents, still run on feudal lines by an inbred clan of Magyars oppressing the Romanian peasants; the scenes in the desert; and the bleak depictions of civilian life during the last year of the war.

In the chaos that ensued as the Central Powers began to surrender - the dispersal of crews and units, the sudden emergence of fragmented groups and ethnic and ideological squabbles - the narrator is left to pick up the broken threads of his life … and there the narrative ends. After 400 pages we are left still wishing to know what happened next - surely one of the best recommendations a novel can receive. A few loose ends are tied up, as 70 years later the narrator reports to us on the fate of this or that man or U-boat, but the intervening years are left a tantalizing blank. We can only hope the author means to publish a sequel.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 1 Dec 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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