What put this book into my hands? I must have responded to Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s association with it, having been charmed by that writer in With Tearing Haste. And some marketing genius (at Amazon, I suspect) persuaded me that I would enjoy this account of an adventure in WWII Crete, when Paddy and his friend Billy (that would be the author, W. Stanley Moss), kidnapped a German general and whisked him off the island to Cairo.
It’s a light-hearted adventure tale, full of humor and elan, written with casual grace. In his preface, Moss explains that this is “an almost direct transcription of a diary which I kept in 1944.” He comments on — but does not excuse — “the spirit of light-heartedness and twenty-two-year-old exuberance (almost bumptiousness) with which it was written. One has to accept the fact that we were all pretty pleased with ourselves in those days,..”
Well, wouldn’t you be? Here you are, scrambling around the mountains of Crete, surrounded by piratical-looking Cretans and a few Englishmen disguised as such. You yourself are disguised as a German, since that was a necessary part of the plot to capture your German general. You haven’t slept much in days but shepherds have kept you and your band supplied with food and plenty of raki, the Cretan liquor. And you still have with you a little library that includes works by Cellini, Donne, Tolstoi, Baudelaire, and Lewis Carroll.
Ill Met By Moonlight, then, is a jolly lark, a real-life version of the lightest moments in a Patrick O’Brian novel. Billy and his friend Paddy had some near-misses with German troops, but the worst they had to endure was great discomfort. Fleas, you know. No bloodshed, no boredom, and even anxiety is recounted as suspense. Moss was a crackerjack writer, and his sheer enthusiasm pulls you along. He’s also terrifically observant and a natural storyteller. As the little band of Englishmen, Cretan henchmen and their German captive traverse German-occupied Crete, they move from one cottage or cave to another. In each spot there are new guides, new suppliers or hosts. Moss is fascinated by them all and his pen-portraits are delicious. Here’s his description of a man he had formerly known in Cairo, who has gone native: “He has grown an impressive beard, which he treats with the affection of a spinster for her favourite cat, and wears an elegant sort of musical-comedy costume, complete with wine-coloured cummerbund, turban, and the usual trappings.”
Of course I can’t help comparing this light-hearted boys’ adventure saga to the very different stories we hear coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. This book is fun, a word nobody’s using about our wars today. Is the difference in the author’s perception of the events? The cultural context? The nature of the fighting, the weapons, the tasks at hand? Probably all of them.
Once the General has been captured, Moss and his friend Paddy try to figure out how to communicate with him, since neither speaks German.
“Paddy asked him if he spoke English.
“‘Nein,’ said the General.
“‘Russian?’ I asked. ‘Or Greek?’
In unison: “‘Parlez-vous français?’
“‘Un petit peu.’
“To which we could not resist the Cowardesque reply, ‘I never think that’s quite enough.'”
You must admit that’s beguiling. It also seems to belong to a world in which war was a completely different animal.