The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Brave Company. Next come the two novels by Guthrie Wilson, Brave Company, 1951, and The Feared and the Fearless, 1954.
Brave Company has the great advantage of a brief central episode to give it the unity which war as a whole can seldom have. Wilson's heroes are a company of the New Zealand Division in the mountains of North Italy. The actual battle incident from which the novel springs is described in chapter seventeen of Sir Edward Puttick's History of 25 Battalion, 2NZ.E.F. Second-Lieutenant Guthrie Wilson was in charge of a platoon sent to a position 400 yards in advance of the battalion's outposts on the Senio River in January-February 1945. It was a raid to take prisoners, inflict casualties, and obtain information about enemy dispositions. They held an impossible position for some fifteen to sixteen hours. Guthrie Wilson was awarded the M.C. for his leadership and gallantry.
The novel at once won overseas acclaim. It is the narrative of "Lawyer", the survivor of an infantry platoon in the bitter campaign of 1944-5. Nothing explicit identifies the men as ours ; this may be intentional, to make them stand for any men in any war, but it leaves them rather one-dimensional. The characters are flat, typical, not personal, Hadfield being the fullest picture. The point of the novel lies, however, not in the separate individuality of these men, but in their community, with its suffering, stoic philosophy, endurance, humour. Brave Company is at its best in rendering the things heard, seen, felt, in warfare. In particular the night climb to Costa San Paulo and the company's leave spell in Forli are memorable.
Brave Company is not the usual type of war novel. There is no direct assault on the horror and the waste; there is no wide sweep of page 81 strategy and national effects ; there is little exploration of the inner man. There is some philosophising on the meaning, if any, of war experiences, but no prolonged analysis. It concentrates upon one small area of experience, moving with an economical strength, in a deliberately underplayed prose style. Sometimes Guthrie Wilson moves disastrously from this objective documentary manner into conventional novelese. Taken as a whole, however, the book convinces by its honesty, its singleness of aim, its occasional flashes of anger (especially about the "bloody base bludgers"), and by its refusal to be heroic. (Notes for a critical discussion appear in the Appendix.)
Guthrie Wilson's next novel, Julien Ware, 1952, will be discussed later. In 1954 came his second war novel, The Feared and the Fearless, also set in Italy. This is a deliberately violent study of "Brutto" (Scarface), the New Zealand leader of a partisan group; it is about blood and guts and murder and madness, about evil inextricably mixed with good, about pity for suffering and admiration for strength. Brutto, made repulsive by his raw head wound in the manner of Gothic terror novelists, terrifies all about him. Probably he is meant to symbolise the horror of war in what it does to the body and to the spirit. In both Brutto is feared, is fearless, is maimed, is strong.
However this psychological theme is too much for the author, whose obsession with brutality exploited in strained rhetoric reminds one of the turgidities of cheap sensational fiction. The climax of the novel is when Brutto returns to New Zealand, murders, and has to be hunted down, a sacrificial "Christ with a Sten gun". This book raises doubts about Guthrie Wilson's artistic control. Is he merely making a blatant appeal to the popular market for blood-and-sex? Or is he writing out his obsessions after a tragic personal experience of what war does to men?