Das Boot, by Lothar-Günther Buchheim

Epic tale of a U-Boat mission in the WW2. Told in the first person by Werner, who's assigned to the crew in the capacity of reporter(? I think - see below), it follows the events as the boat goes in search of English convoys, and tries to avoid enemy planes, mines and depth charges.

I see from Wikipedia that Werner is a war correspondent, although I was a bit unclear, through the book, exactly what his role was: perhaps this was the one weak point of the book: a lot of the time it seems like he's there for the ride, rather than helping with the mission. Maybe that's how it really was (the book is autobiographical) but it just felt a bit odd.

But that's about the only thing I could quibble about, because it was a magnificent book. It's fairly long - twenty-one hours of audio, but it whizzed by. There were some very long sections describing and evoking the boredom on the ship, as it sailed for days without coming across any sign of the enemy. But they weren't at all boring to read. As well as the men's grumbing, and talk of sexual conquests (I was a bit surprised at how graphic some of this was, given that the book was written in 1973), there are fantastic descriptions of the environment, and doesn't appear to run out of ways to describe the pattern of foam on the sea, shapes of waves, and sunsets. And, I learned a bit about how the U-Boats worked (there is a fair bit of description in here which is enough to be interesting without overwhelming you with boring detail).

The sense of claustrophobia is very well done too: the boat sails on the surface as much as it can, but dives whenever there's a possibility of enemy attack. That's because a U-Boat is so vulnerable - hiding is its only real defence. So when below the surface there is a considerable tension: the only thing they can do is keep quiet and hope that the enemy won't know where to drop depth charges. And they have to do a lot of hiding.

The other thing they have to do a lot of is make-shift repairs. When things break, there's nothing to fix them with except whatever happens to be on board. And being cooped up inside the vessel, often at peculiar angles and unsafe depths, there's a fair amount of stress involved.

Several of the set pieces are what I expected - being depth-charged, firing torpedoes, looking for enemy ships. But the story took a (to me) unexpected turn as they approached Gibraltar, and I had no idea how it would turn out.

I was really disappointed to finish the book (although I thought the ending was quite good) - it seemed to go much too quickly. Also worth mentioning is the quality of translation - it didn't feel as though it had been translated (which I think is a good thing): there were quite a lot of idiomatic expressions which I assume can't have been translated literally from the German, as well as songs which rhymed.

Completed : 12-Jul-2009 (audiobook)

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