THIS IS an odd little book, in terms of both genre and style. Its origins lie in a box of photographic negatives that the author, James A. Coghlan happened to find after his great-uncle’s death. Coghlan’s attempt to recreate the voice of this great-uncle — a young Scottish soldier in the 1930s, who joined the British army as an escape from the poverty of his hometown, ending up in India and then in a British intelligence mission — is remarkably successful. John Coghlan — or Jackie — emerges as a sturdy, likeable young man: attached to family, loyal to colleagues, courageous but never foolhardy. The problem is that he tells us very little beyond this, either about himself or his surroundings.
The slightness of the narrative and the thinness of the descriptions — especially in an imagined travelogue such as this — can only be partially justified by the assumption that the narrator isn’t meant to be a chatty sort of chap. People often speak in Scottish dialect — to decipher which we are provided that quaint thing: a glossary. Then, though the blurb claims that the novella captures “a chunk of the 1930s”, 80-odd pages are devoted to a 30-day car journey, while seven years in India are telescoped into the first fifth of the book. The diary-like style is supremely unconvincing in this opening section, subjecting us to such gems as “After three years of relative quiet in Edinburgh, we travel overnight… to London,” or “An uneventful six months tour in Gibraltar, before we set sail for India.”
Even in the book’s main narrative — an account of a secret mission that takes six British soldiers from Rawalpindi to London by car — such fabled places as Istanbul or Teheran or Vienna receive short shrift. The purpose of the mission itself is never revealed. All storied detail is reserved for regimental anecdotes, or memories from Scotland.
Even the rare comments on places visited are made in terms of something from Jackie’s previous life: patrolling the hills near Lucknow reminds him of the Campsies near Glasgow; a barrier at the border of Afghanistan evokes fences in the tenements of Govan; even the experience of “hiding in plain view” on Nazi territory in Nuremberg reminds him of his brother hiding money right under his mother’s nose.
One swings between being amused at these rather droll comparisons and being grudgingly charmed by the domestication of unfamiliar terrain and improbable events thus achieved — a domestication that was probably a standard colonial technique of survival.
A few of the original photographs are reproduced in the book, and one wishes they were larger and clearer. Some in particular, like the one where the group is digging themselves out of a roadblock, one man jauntily carrying a shovel on his shoulder, provides just the sort of glimpse of character that the text fails to flesh out. The novella, like the photographs, leaves one unsatisfied and yearning for a closer look.