Monday, June 4, 2018

'No fool but yourself made you enlist, Waldemar.'

I like the way Georges Surdez backs his way into the actual meat of his Foreign Legion story, "By Special Request" (Adventure, January 1, 1932). Lieutenant Framyr volunteers to hold Bou-Mabrouk, a Moroccan post overrun and then abandoned by the Riffi rebels, because his best friend had commanded the Senegalese infantry who had been killed to the last man. Surdez lets us see Framyr through the eyes of Sergeant Kellburger, only to have Kellburger become the protagonist when Framyr is abruptly killed. The real story is the war of wills within the insurgent war between Kellburger and Private Waldemar. Of the latter, Surdez writes: "His chief fault was one rare in Germans, if common enough in Frenchmen and Belgians. He loved to argue with his superiors, to show off before a crowd -- in a word, to be different." This is significant in a unit that is disproportionately German. Waldemar fled Germany after getting "mixed up in a counterrevolution in Germany soon after the armistice." The changing political situation in Germany -- it's unclear when exactly this story is set -- encourages Waldemar to think of returning home to his family now that his term of service is almost up. In fact, it expires while the post is under siege by the Riffi, as the ranks of Legionnaires are steadily whittled down and the survivors are tempted to quit by Megandank, a deserter who promises safe passage and pretty much whatever men want, while threatening utter destruction, by air power if necessary, to those who hold out. Kellburger refuses to let Waldemar leave, fearing that others would follow him, and as his fellow sergeants and corporals fall one by one the ad hoc commander is forced to trust Waldemar with responsibility. There's some unseemly pride at stake, at least from our modern perspective. Kellburger is determined to hold out longer than the Sengalese, who after all "were unimaginative men who suffered only physically, from thirst, hunger and wounds." His men hold out one day longer, and then Kellburger is seriously wounded when Megendank, approaching under a truce flag, lures him into sniper's range. At last, if inevitably, Waldemar rises to the occasion, taking out Megandank and rallying the remaining defenders until relief arrives. Surdez doesn't go overboard and have Waldemar reenlist, but his experience clearly has changed the ertswhile malcontent for the better. Again, Surdez keeps his Legion material fresh by foregrounding a clash of  personalities. His characters aren't very sophisticated, to be honest, but Surdez has a knack for making the reader feel that he's encountering distinctive individuals with every new story. It's a rare one of his that I haven't enjoyed.

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