Monday, 19 January 2015

"Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete", Paddy Leigh Fermor

I'm often a touch skeptical about posthumous books, too often it results in something roughly stitched together and better left unseen. Thus, while there was some excitement on my part when, in late 2014, to great fanfare Leigh Fermor's account of his abduction of General Kreipe in Crete during 1994 was published, it was tinged with a few reservations. Indeed, on several occasions it was lifted from a bookshop's shelves, only to be returned as flicking through it seemed to confirm some of my reticence. The Christmas break however sufficiently eroded my resolve to get it over the threshold.

"Abducting a General" covers the oft recounted tale of Leigh Fermor's wartime exploits on Crete, aired en passant during his travelogue of walking to Constantinople in the 1930s, getting its spell on the big screen in "Ill Met by Moonlight", and now receiving a posthumous volume to itself.

Leigh Fermor left enough of a manuscript to work with, and it carries his inimitable style and voice, but problems do however emerge at times - for example there are points where personalities are introduced without context, and there are the occasional jarring awkward sentences, the sort of thing a good relationship between author and editor would readily fix, sadly impossible here.

As might be expected, there is a strong sense of place to the work, with wartime Crete vividly represented, along with a level of wry acceptance of war's casual brutality, in a way that is perhaps most reminiscent of Fitzroy Maclean's "Eastern Approaches". What makes this poignant, is that so much of the war in the Eastern Mediterranean portrays it as something of a backwater, somewhat far removed from the main location of decision in Russia, the North Atlantic, or in France. In this light the efforts made, and the price paid in this theatre carry with them a sense of mild futility. Did Kreipe's abduction do anything to materially shorten the war? Or was it an enterprising stunt successful largely in rousing the ire of the occupying German army, with significant consequences for the population of Crete? It is always a mistake to apply the morals of today to a previous time, but somehow the realisation that ultimately the events recounted by Leigh Fermor amounted to little more than an expensive footnote cast a pall over what reads as an old school wartime adventure story along the lines of "The Guns of Navarone".

I have a huge amount of affection for Paddy Leigh Fermor's writing, and because of this I worry a touch that many may have their first encounter with it through the means of "Abducting a General", thanks to the initially appealing subject matter, and the level of promotion that publishers John Murray succeeded in bringing to bear. It's certainly a lot less intimidating to pick up than, for example, "A Time of Gifts", but it's ultimately also somewhat less rewarding for all that. Maybe there's a good reason this is a posthumous account rather than the story Leigh Fermor himself would like to be remembered for?

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