Sunday, September 16, 2018

'Dirty! He is strong man, that fellow.'

There's often a vicarious "can you take it?" quality to Foreign Legion stories. The readers is invited to imagine whether he, in the protagonist's boots, can take the discipline, the climate, the bullying by superior officers. Such stories are often tests of character, the final exam taking place under fire when some (usually) Muslim insurgents attack the post or the patrol. Going against that grain, Georges Surdez's "Three Mad Sergeants" (Adventure, February 1939) is one of the master's most nihilistic works in his genre. It concerns a unit on punishment detail in the Atlas mountains as winter hits. They're put in charge of the titular non-coms, the worst of whom, and thus the leader, being a sadistic, possibly syphilitic Pole named Larkorska. While he torments the men, the other two, rivals for a woman, goad each other toward mutual destruction, egged on by Lakorska, the enemy of all. The hero of this tale is Magnus, a former German officer who apparently joined the Legion to forget his killing of a best friend for cowardice on a world-war battlefield. Normally he's the drunk of the regiment -- or else it's the Bulgarian, Nikirov, obsessed with finding a hidden stash of booze -- but as he sobers up, deprived of liquor (apart from the daily wine ration) by the cruel Lakorska, he regains enough of his old pride to find his situation intolerable.

Not to worry, though, since after Lakorska finally gets one of the other sergeants to kill the other, the maddest of the sergeants takes out the survivor and goes completely berserk, holing up in his well-stocked, well-fortified quarters to take potshots at anyone that moves. With his newfound clarity, Magnus realizes that the men have to take Lakorska alive in order not to be accused of fragging all three sergeants. He also comes up with a plan to smoke him out of his lair so he can be dogpiled, but doesn't anticipate the madman bursting out into the open stark naked, his apparently pasty pallor making excellent camouflage in the snow. It falls to Bulgarian brute Nikirov finally to subdue Lakorska, overcoming the Pole's proverbial strength of a madman (see Nikirov's comment in the header) in a desperate grapple. In the end, Nikirov finally finds the legendary stash and all the survivors get wasted except Magnus, who holds out until the captain who originally assigned everyone to this wintry hell offers him a promotion for his leadership. That brings back unbearable memories of the war, along with a sergeant's stripes, both of which he hopes to "soak off" by throwing himself off the wagon at the end. Most of the time you can find some sort of a moral in a Surdez story, but this one is bracing, and arguably one of his best, in its complete absence of such a thing.

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