Among our basic instincts are survival, sex and competition _ the urge to win. To be the fastest, the strongest, the smartest, the best. In sports, in school, in business, in politics, in war. There is no second best. If you are not best, you're a loser. There is pride in being best _ honours, rewards.
The Challenge by Andrew Lambert 539pp, 2013 Faber and Faber paperback Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 450 baht
There is disappointment, sadness, no respect, no prestige in being a loser. But there is a way out. The loser claims to be the winner. If he repeats long and insistently enough that he's the best, that it would be unpatriotic to disagree, people may well believe him. Especially when the actual winner shrugs it off.
However, No.1 may think enough is enough and rightfully assert himself. Pointing to the record, he persuasively makes clear why he, not the usurper, deserves kudos. How the embarrassed loser disputes this is interesting to observe. Doubtless, he won't shrug it off. His honour has been impugned. Perhaps a duel?
For two centuries, it has been taught in Stateside schools that the US won the War of 1812. It started as a vehement protest against the UK for the Royal Navy boarding its ships at sea and impressing the sailors. London insisted they could do so in time of war (against Napoleon).
In The Challenge, eminent British naval historian Andrew Lambert has researched the War of 1812 in the best tradition of a serious historian. The notes, bibliography, lists, maps, illustrations and index indicate that he left no diary or log book alone to get at the truth.
The author explores the social, economic and political condition on both sides of the Atlantic. The naval and army officers, their ambitions, their good and poor decisions. The battles on sea and on land. What is made clear from the onset is that Britain in 1812 was a global power, master of the seas, while America was a second if not a third-world country.
With few exceptions, His Majesty's forces won every battle. With only 4,000 men they burned down Washington, DC. The US Navy lost virtually all its ships, often to smaller but better-captained English warships. The exploits of the USS Constitution _ "Old Ironsides" _ were vastly exaggerated.
The main reason for America's defeat in the War of 1812 was the blockade of its ports by the Royal Navy. Trade dried up. People went hungry. The country went bankrupt. Successive presidents meant to invade Canada, but the military wasn't up to it. All of which settles who were the real winners and losers of that war.
The Game by Tom Wood 504pp, 2013 Sphere paperback Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 350 baht
A super hero
I'd taken it for granted that heroes were meant to be role models for children, but this isn't so. To be sure they perform good deeds, but in doing so they kill those who don't.
Their battles are fierce and full of bloodshed. It is the struggles, thrilling and dirty, the kids most remember.
Authors have picked up on this and their protagonists are all too often violent heroes. They break bones, pile up bodies, blow things up. At times, the reader wonders what sets them apart from the villains. Of course they are on the side of what is good, so whatever they do is OK.
The Game by Brit Tom Wood is a prime example of this. As a role model take Victor, the hero, a contract killer. Think Superman, except he can't fly or be weakened by Kryptonite. He runs tirelessly, outshoots six trained killers, picks locks in seconds, is a contortionist, rescues women and children in distress.
In his spare time Victor reads books, novels and non-fiction. But he has little spare time, his services in great demand and his bank account rising. One of his clients is the CIA. In this story his mark is Kooi, a Dutch contract killer.
The agency learns about a terrorist plot in Rome. Speaking of plots, the author gives us one that adds a new dimension to the term suspension of disbelief. Victor is mistaken for Kooi and he goes along with it. The head of Russia's foreign intelligence service will attend a reception at the Russian embassy in Rome and there are plans to blow it up.
Behind the plot are not Arab terrorists but Chechen ones. They kidnap Kooi's wife and son to induce him to carry the bomb. Chapters are devoted to how Victor, as Kooi, foils the plot. The Italian carabinieri lack his skills. Kooi's family doesn't know what's going on. Can't say that I blame them.
For 559 action-packed pages, look no further. Victor isn't six-foot-five like more than a few contemporary literary good guys, but a hero he clearly is. Apart from being a paid assassin, he is presented as a role model. What youngster can identify with him? Still, Superman remains a favourite after all these years, so why not Victor?
About the author
- Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer