There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Turning the tables: High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965).



High Citadel - Desmond Bagley


....South America proved a happy hunting ground for several thriller writers, just as Africa had for Rider Haggard and Edgar Wallace, and previous generations of adventure-seekers. With its jungles, high mountains, lost cities, and, indeed, lost civilisations, as well as extremely exotic (and dangerous) local inhabitants – piranhas, anacondas, native Indians with blowpipes and curare-tipped darts, not to mention ex-Nazis – it is rather surprising that it was not the setting for more tales of high adventure.

In the same year that Snake Water was published, however, Desmond Bagley produced another top-notch one in High Citadel, a rip-roaring thriller set in the High Andes where the survivors of a plane crash not only have to contend with the inhospitable terrain, but are pursued by an army of rebel soldiers. Fortunately, among the ranks of the survivors are a couple of medieval historians who are able to construct medieval weapons to fight off their attackers.7

....Desmond Bagley was really good at disasters and how his characters reacted to the dangers which surrounded them, often natural or physical (hurricanes, avalanches) or man-made and occasionally his characters showed extraordinary (though not fantastical) resourcefulness.

The 'unique selling point' of High Citadel was how the survivors of a plane hi-jack (and crash) in the Andes fight off well-armed insurgents by resorting to building weapons from antiquity. When a condensed version of the book appeared (with illustrations) in the American magazine Argosy in August 1965, it was under the rather bellicose headline: 'Are medieval weapons a match against the military might of a modern Communist force?'2

--Mike Ripley, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (2017).



***


High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965) takes place high in the Andes mountains.


Mines, mining camps, a tortuous mountain road, glaciers, and a bridgehead are the locations of action. Our protagonists, in less than a week, survive (mostly) plane crash, altitude sickness, scrapes, cuts, frostbite, and bullet holes.


One among the survivors of the crash is a political opponent of the country's current leadership. Cuban-backed guerrillas want him dead before they launch their coup.

I'm a Marxist and a defender of the Cuban revolution and its revolutionary leadership. I still enjoyed this outdoor adventure thriller. Bagley might smear the Cuban revolution, but I chose to take that as testament to the revolution's political weight and moral authority in mid-60s South America.

The plane crash survivors are a cross section of genric swells. There's the Anglo-Irish pilot, O'Hara, who pulls himself out of a personal and professional tailspin by becoming a real leader. Dr. Aguillar, the bourgeois liberal politician, a frail and excessively noble old man, is accompanied by his lovely niece Benedetta and younger cothinker of utmost skill, Rohde. Peabody, an ugly American if ever there was one, comes to a sticky end. Willis and Armstrong are respectively engineer and Medieval military scholar. Miss Ponsky is what used to be called an old maid school marm, but she is also the archery champion of South Bridge, Connecticut.

The survivors harry guerillas to stop them repairing and crossing a river bridge. They do this by converting abandoned materials in the derelict mining camp to crossbows and a trebuchet. All work together, and with an author like Bagley spelling things out I now think I could at least build a crossbow.

The fittest survivors agree to scale a looming peak in order to reach help in a valley on the other side. It is a harrowing trip, filled with sharp depictions of cold, hunger, and exhaustion.


….Rohde cut steps in the fifteen-foot ice wall as high as he could reach while standing on reasonably firm ground, then climbed up and roped himself to pitons and stood in the steps he had already cut, chopping vigorously. He cut the steps very deep, having Forester in mind, and it took him nearly an hour before he was satisfied that Forester could climb the wall safely.


The packs were hauled up on a rope and then Forester began the climb, roped to Rohde. It was the most difficult task he had faced in his life. Normally he could have almost run up the broad and deep steps that Rohde had cut but now the bare ice burned his hands, even through the gloves, his chest ached and stabbing pains pierced him as he lifted his arms above his head, and he felt weak and tired as though the very breath of life had been drained from him. But he made it and collapsed at Rohde's feet.


Here the wind was a howling devil driving down the pass and bearing with it great clouds of powdery snow and ice particles which stung the face and hands. The din was indescribable, a freezing pandemonium from an icy hell, deafening in its loudness. Rohde bent over Forester, shielding him from the worst of the blast, and made him sit up. "You can't stay here," he shouted. "We must keep moving. There is no more hard climbing — just the slope to the top and down the other side."


Forester flinched as the ice particles drove like splinters into his face and he looked up into Rohde's hard and indomitable eyes. "Okay, buster," he croaked harshly. ".Where you go, so can I."


Rohde thrust some coca quids into his hand. "You will need these." He checked the rope round Forester's waist and then picked up both packs, tentatively feeling their weight. He ripped them open and consolidated the contents into one pack, which he slung on his back despite Forester's protests. The empty pack was snatched by the wind and disappeared into the grey reaches of the blizzard behind them.


Forester stumbled to his feet and followed in the tracks that Rohde broke. He hunched his shoulders and held his head down, staring at his feet in order to keep the painful wind from his face. He wrapped the blanket hood about the lower part of his face but could do nothing to protect his eyes, which became red and sore. Once he looked up and the wind caught him right in the mouth, knocking the breath out of him as effectively as if he had been punched in the solar plexus. Quickly he bent his head again and trudged on.


The slope was not very steep, much less so than below the cliffs, but it meant that to gain altitude they had that much farther to go. He tried to work it out; they had to gain a thousand feet of height and the slope was, say, thirty degrees — but then his bemused mind bogged down in the intricacies of trigonometry and he gave up the calculation.





Readers who enjoy military strategy, extreme weather survival, and heroes scrambling around in rough terrain and turning the tables on enemies by using guerilla tactics and pre-gunpowder weapons will find everything they want in High Citadel.

Jay
8 January




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