To Both Laugh and Cry in the Great War: "A Sailor of Austria" Review

Updated on June 5, 2019

A title is an important thing for a book, one which is important for drawing in readers, for setting the tone, for beginning the tale. A good title can do much to make the difference between a book which is lefty dust covered on the shelf, or a book which is popular and a success. But sometimes even the best of titles cannot live up to some books, cannot describe them fully, for their richness and complexity escapes that which a single line of text can say. A Sailor of Austria is one of this varied collection of books, with a title which both captures the whimsical and light tone which permeates much of the work, but fails to be able to express the deep emotions which traverse it. I don’t think there is any title that could. What title could cover the range of emotions from the death of a centenarian adrift on the shores of England and recounting his adventures in the First World War, to heroism in the Austro-Hungarian submarine service in the Great War, to breathtaking escapes from danger, to the death of loved ones, to laughter and joy? In following the Austro-Hungarian naval officer, Otto Prohaska, serving in the submarine service of the Austro-Hungarian navy during the conflict, we see it all.

Perhaps the most common extract from A Sailor of Austria which I have seen has been representative of this, reflecting the witty and enchanting dry sense of humor and irony which pervades the author’s style: "I have lived now for over a century, yet I can still say with complete confidence that no one can claim to have plumbed the depths of human misery who has not shared the fore-ends of a submarine with a camel". The tone with which the author writes the book, and the character of Otto Prohaska, are not simply complements, but bound together and strengthen each other, reinforcing the way in which one sees the world through the eyes of an Austro-Hungarian submarine captain. The easy going wry sense of cynicism, a sense of perhaps world-weariness and gentle mockery of tired old Austria, surrounded by aggressive and nationalistic nations, is something which shines through in the writing, in the differences between the actions of Otto, and for example, his German counterparts.

And yet I feel that in of itself, this declaration is, as I begin the book with and its commentary upon titles, insufficient to truly embrace the sheer emotion and power which courses through it. There are moments of such sadness and tragedy, that the soul is wrenched at within its pages, be it through death or the genuine and unfiltered agony and loss of men confronted with all of the horrors and cruelty of war. This book is not simply a funny adventure and tale, even if it may be written with such brilliant humor and wit.

The attention to detail is an impressive and fascinating element throughout, lending a degree of authenticity to the book which is unparalleled, in geographic terms, in technical descriptions, in intimate knowledge of the naval vessels, and in regards to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s geography, the conflicts and contradictions in it, and the history. The description of Otto’s upbringing in the small Czech town of Hirschendorf/KrnavaSadybsko with its train station of Erzherzog Karls Nordbahn, Oderberg branch, Station No. 6, and the constant fights over linguistic rights and the ethnic balance of power in the city, is a beautiful example of the attention to detail which marks the book’s story. Some are clearly the product of years of service and research, such as linguistic differences between the Austrian and German navies which are remarked upon during joint services between the two.

Various Austro-Hungarian submarines
Various Austro-Hungarian submarines

If I can claim perhaps but one fault, it might be the perfection of Otto Prohaska. Perhaps perfection is too strong of a word, and none of which Prohaska does is per se unbelievable or impossible. The disgust at Turkish execution of hostages, his respect and camaraderie for his men, his tolerant views and cosmopolitan, not internationalism, but the decent and unassuming acceptance and loyalty to other, older, and as they would see it, high forms of loyalty like to the throne, which leads him to opposition to the ugly racism of the Pan-Germanists, his basic human decency and respect for people in lower positions of society, a hatred for war which he privately expresses in pacifistic and even socialistic sentiments to his wife - none of these are impossible, but I worry that a man like Otto Prohaska is cut from a cloth which is perhaps slightly too pure for that of a regular mortal, without flaws and with views different than those that a man of his time would probably have held. But even in saying this, one can understand and empathize constantly with Otto, who reacts to situations around him and is not just an automaton: perhaps he is cut from a finer cloth, but some people simply are. Otto’s comrades are mostly outlines, but then, the book is written as a flashback anyway so that is fitting.

Many historical fiction books can have the tendency to be too dry, too rough, lacking in literary refinement. History first, and fiction second. But A Sailor of Austria brilliantly manages to combine the two into a volume which brings laughter, excitement, action, authenticity, and deep and profound sadness all into one. For a look into the Austro-Hungarian empire in its dying days, into the ideas of the people that lived in it, the effects of war and life under the shadow of apocalyptic conflict, starvation, and plague, this book is peerless as a source of historical fiction: the recommendation to read it to see a first hand glimpse into the thoughts and reality of the empire holds true, as it does with much historical fiction. But it is the story which it tells, rich in both humor and sadness, which makes it into a masterpiece. Military fiction, but fans of deeper and higher literature would find plenty to look in this complex, subtle, and beautifully and well written book, a book which showers the reader with every emotion save for boredom as it grips the attention and jumps from beautifully crafted recounts of life on submarines, to adventures, to action, the reading traversing from the depths of profound sadness to sparkling laughter and humor in this brilliant story.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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