“Remember that we expect from you conduct of a quite different order from that of the mass of mankind. Your purpose - to escape the bondage of time, to obtain mastery over yourselves, and thus over your environment - must never waver... This discipline has one aim, the acquisition of power, and by power freedom.”
The Vice-Marshall of The Aerodrome was quite the pontificating bastard. He was always ready with a few words of disdain for the way things have been done, and always willing to share his opinions about how things should be done. He despises tradition because it keeps people from mindlessly following his version of the NEW ORDER.
You see, this is a fable about Fascism.
We first meet Roy at the conclusion of his 21st birthday. The book opens with him lying in the weeds and reeds with his face sinking into the mud. He’s had a bit too much to drink. He’ll soon wish he’d had more to drink. During a bit of timely eavesdropping, he discovers that his father and mother are not his parents, and with an added slice of cherry on top that, his father, the rector, is actually a murderer.
A lot to take in drunk or sober.
He spends most of the rest of the book trying to determine who his parents are. When he discovers someone who does know something about his parentage, they become cryptic and evasive with usually a dash of...well...lying.
Roy has a girlfriend named Bess who is the best looking lass in the village. The airmen of the aerodrome flock around her as well. They, not surprisingly, are only interested in the more lustful aspects of being with a girl. The Vice-Marshall has made it very clear that thoughts of more permanent arrangements, such as marriage, are just a form of lunacy. The Flight-Lieutenant becomes Roy’s arch rival for Bess’s affections, though for now Roy still has the inside track.
”We began fumbling with our clothes, reaching in an inexpert way for the satisfaction with which neither of us was perfectly acquainted. There were difficulties and dangers of which we had heard, expostulations and timidity. And there was something loose and scrambling in our love-making, nor was anything conspicuously beautiful or satisfactory achieved. Yet something had been done….”
Roy is in love, well as much as anyone can be in love in their early twenties. It is all rather a rush of emotions and desires to sort out. Yearning involves a whole concoction of a natural need we have for pairing, mind swirling lusts, and usually the beginnings of true feelings.
While Roy is rolling around in the hay with Bess, the Flight-Lieutenant shoots The Rector while giving a machine gun demonstration. ”I say, Roy, something rather rotten has happened. I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man.” The interesting thing about this event is that Roy is still struggling with his own feelings about a man he feels has lied to him his whole life. He feels remorse that he is dead, but also a slender thread of relief. The people of the village seem to lack the proper emotion for this tragedy. There is already a level of resignation weighing heavily on everyone about how the future will play out. The Vice-Marshall waves the whole event off as just an unfortunate accident.
But was it?
The Aerodrome in true Fascist form takes over the village. This is much easier since the death of the Rector left the village leaderless. The Flight-Lieutenant is put in charge of the sermons at the church, which of course is just a way to continue to indoctrinate the village into the philosophies of the Vice-Marshall. Bess convinces Roy to become an airman, and he actually discovers he is very good at flying. Roy begins to see the benefits of just accepting the ideology and the success that will be his. It is hard not to think about all the good men in Germany who didn’t believe in what the Nazis were doing, but were benefiting from complying, and maybe more importantly keeping their families safe. I’ll trot out a quote by Edmund Burke. ”The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Roy will unknowingly become embroiled in a love triangle, one of those things that can leave a person gut punched, unhinged, and bitter. He has his own affairs, but we know that in his core what Roy wants is a wife, a family, a life beyond shallow liaisons.
The who sired who question becomes comical as more than just Roy become uncertain as to who actually spawned them. There is subtle humor throughout the book as Rex Warner exposes how ridiculous the propaganda can become as leaders try to convince a passive citizenry of the way forward.
I first heard about The Aerodrome when James Blish alluded to it in the intro he wrote for the fantastic book by Anna Kavan titled Ice. Warner was well respected by his writing colleagues. He went on to write three other anti-fascist novels during the war. He had a high suspicion of government or any entity being able to solve all of our problems. His most successful book was a translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, which sold over a million copies. It is hard to imagine a book like that selling that many copies in today’s market. He married three times, twice to the same woman. He decided after a brief foray with another woman that his choice the first time was the right one.
This novel is nearly forgotten today, but still resonates with the fear and absurdity of a world gone mad, and the complacency of the people allowing it to happen.
I was very fortunate to find an affordable first American edition of this book at Bill’s Books in Frederick, Maryland.
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