Too grand by half, Iain Sharp

Firebird
Natasha Templeton
Hodder Headline, $29.95,
ISBN 0340 640448

I admire the pluck with which Natasha Templeton has striven to make her first novel a grand Russian affair, almost a New Zealand War and Peace ‑ with a large cast, a broad historical sweep and a big tragic theme (the forcible repatriation of thousands of Cossacks to the Soviet Union in 1945). I fear, however, that she has bitten off more than she can chew. Even Solzhenitsyn, after all, began his excoriations on a modest scale with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The historical circumstances on which Firebird is based were elucidated with exemplary skill by James McNeish in the New Zealand Listener on November 26 1994. I refer readers who want further details to McNeish’s masterly treatment, but, in brief, the pertinent facts are as follows.

As a result of the secret Yalta pact between Churchill and Stalin in February 1945, two million Russians were repatriated to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in exchange for the safe return of British citizens who had been held prisoner in parts of Europe which had subsequently come under Soviet control. With few exceptions, the Russians were either executed as soon as they arrived on Soviet soil or sent to labour camps in the Arctic Circle. Among their number were 50,000 Cossacks who had surrendered to the British with the expectation of being treated humanely.

Many of these Cossacks had fled to western Europe between 1918 and 1920. Since they had never been Soviet citizens in the first place, they were surely exempt from the terms of the Yalta agreement. But sorting out which Cossacks were which would have been a long and difficult administrative undertaking. After six years of warfare the British soldiers were keen to wrap things up as swiftly as possible. They had little sympathy for the Cossacks, some of whom had fought on the German side. They decided to repatriate the lot and let the Soviets sort out the problem at the other end. Resisting Cossacks were battered with rifle butts and loaded on to trucks at bayonet point.

Some of the ugliest incidents took place at Klagenfurt in southern Austria, where the British division was commanded by a New Zealander, Major‑General Stephen Weir. Described by Field Marshal Montgomery as “one of the greatest artillerymen in all history”, Weir is principally remembered today as the deviser of the “stonk” ‑ the rapid and lethal concentration of massed gunfire on strategic target areas. He planned the massive artillery barrage that opened the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. As well as playing a decisive role in the bitter warfare of the western desert, he also served with distinction in the Indian and Greek campaigns. After retiring from the army with a knighthood in 1960, he became New Zealand’s first ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

When Weir died on September 24 1969, Jack Marshall, the acting Prime Minister, declared with deep respect: “New Zealand has lost one of its most distinguished citizens and one who as both soldier and soldier‑diplomat had made exceptional contributions in peace and war. He was a man of strong personality and of great integrity. The men who served under him during the Second World War will long remember him with affection for his robustness, his decisiveness, his determination on and off the battlefield, coupled with his humanity and consideration for them.”

Major‑General Mort Stirling in Firebird is clearly modelled on Weir. Their careers match in almost every particular. Whether their characters also match is debatable. I wish Templeton had thought of a less obvious name than Mort Stirling for her death-mongering soldier, who is generally considered a splendid fellow by his peers. Firebird is not, however, a subtle novel. For the slower‑witted members of her audience, Templeton spells out the pun in her protagonist’s surname on p161 with a newspaper headline which reads: “Sterling Work Done by Major Stirling”.

I expected Firebird to delve at length into the conscience of a man of acknowledged courage and integrity who was faced with a terrible situation in which professional duty conflicted with common decency. But Stirling is a disappointingly thin creation. Early on, he is defined as a “soldier’s soldier” and Templeton’s portrait never probes much deeper than that. The way she tells it, there isn’t much conflict. Loyal to his men and ruthless to his foes, Stirling never hesitates in his military tasks, even when they involve duplicitous or downright cruel behaviour.

Stern and inflexible as a howitzer, he is depicted as utterly incapable of understanding Russian passion. When the Cossacks complain to him about the requisitioning of their horses, he thunders back in Colonel Blimp fashion: “There are no Cossack horses here. Everything is the property of His Majesty the King of England. And you are the King’s prisoners.”

The novel might have succeeded in spite of Stirling’s crude psychology if the Cossack characters were sufficiently engaging. Instead, they tend to be viewed en masse ‑ a distressing horde shown in David Lean‑like cinemascope. When we’re allowed a close‑up, it’s usually of one of the aged leaders, like Generals Vasiliev, Domanov and Krasnov. Useful as these patriarchal figures are for informing us about early twentieth-century Russian history, they’re too noble, taciturn and emblematic to hold our attention for long as characters in their own right.

Once in a while, we are given a glimpse of Krasnov’s dashing young grandson, Nikolai, and his beautiful wife, Lili. Their youth and vitality are welcome after the succession of craggy generals, but they occasion the worst of Templeton’s writing. The following passage, in which the doomed couple dream of a fresh start in New Zealand, is supposed, I think, to be poignant, but it’s hard not to smirk. And smirking is a ruinous response to a novel which aims to deal seriously with a historical tragedy:

“Perhaps they’ll let us go to New Zealand,” Lili hums, softly rocking both their bodies. “It’s far away in the South Pacific. Even the ocean is called Peaceful, and there’ll never be any wars there.”

They both sigh and hug each other tighter.

“There are two islands like white clouds sailing in the blue Pacific. The climate is gentle. The mountains are high. From the mountain slopes you look across the plain to the sea. There’s space and freedom. The beaches are golden and stretch forever. The woods are so many shades of evergreen; and one tree that blooms a deep red at Christmas time.”

The repatriation of the Cossacks is not the only subject covered in Firebird‘s 519 pages, however. The novel also examines the life and loves of Mort Stirling’s son, Duncan. Raised in Southland, a Rhodes scholar, a National Party stalwart, a cabinet minister in a government led by an ex-corporal popularly nicknamed Piggy, Duncan bears more than a passing resemblance to Hugh Templeton, Natasha’s husband. Similarly, Duncan’s first wife, Nadezhda, a glamorous Russian émigré (the Firebird of the title, named after the fabulous creature in Stravinsky’s ballet), is more than a little reminiscent of Natasha herself.

The roman à clef elements are fascinating but also distracting. The memoir of the former cabinet minister’s wife sometimes threatens to take over the novel completely. While I don’t believe in false modesty, I wish there weren’t quite so many references to how wonderful, radiant, magical and entrancing Nadezdha is, compared to everyone around her.

Ranging in time over four decades, Firebird has an awkward structure and is overly reliant on coincidence in its attempts at connecting its various strands. It begins in 1981 with Mort Stirling’s funeral. Duncan is now married to long‑suffering Marianne, who was his inamorata during his student days many years earlier, before she was supplanted by her more vital and alluring friend, Nadezhda. The Firebird meanwhile has wed Andrew Fellows, who was Duncan’s history tutor at Oxford.

These marital shifts are a little too neat and symmetrical, perhaps, but stranger things have happened. What really strains credulity is that Andrew was also Mort’s aide‑de camp during the war. It was the accidental discovery of a letter from Andrew to the general, raising the old spectre of repatriation that led Nadezdha to divorce Duncan. She couldn’t bear to be connected so closely with the Cossack-killing Stirlings.

Firebird is a badly flawed book. It is too big by half. It is often implausible. Most of the characters are psychologically underdeveloped. Some, indeed, have no psyches at all. Authorial prejudices are often on display, including disdain for Labourites, dislike of Italians, fear and loathing of the protest movement as a lawless rabble and unrelenting hatred of communism in any shape or form.

Yet, for all my misgivings, in the final analysis I still want to applaud TempIeton’s bravado. There are many first novels which are more deftly composed, but you’ll go a long way to find one more daringly ambitious.

Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer.

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