18 July 2018

I can say without any doubt that Conrad’s War by Andrew Davies and Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl are really where The Break Line begins because they were the two books that I read as a child (and reread, over and over again) that opened my eyes to storytelling in books. Until then stories were things that were conjured for me by other people – principally by my grandfather Martin, who wove tales of derring-do in the jungles of Burma during the War with stories of his childhood in the west of Ireland in the early 1900s. Suddenly, stories and books fused.

Conrad's War

Andrew Davies

In Conrad’s War, the eponymous hero slips through a hole in time and finds himself in the thick of Second World War, just as the War starts to seep into his own, modern, childhood. It’s a tale of good versus evil, and the seduction of power – and of honesty, especially with oneself. Conrad is desperate to go to war, but the reality he finds is repellent. He neither leaves immediately though, nor gives up – but stays on to help his father survive . . .

Danny The Champion of the World

Roald Dahl

In Danny The Champion of the World I read about a child whose fictional life I wanted to live so much that I insisted my parents call me Danny! I also read about a world where it’s OK to break the law if there is a strong moral reason to do so.

What was so compelling about those two books was not just the magical, almost-real worlds they created in which boys my age proved themselves on their own terms in the face of the adult realm of adversity, but that I saw in the characters of Conrad and Danny a twin reflection of myself. It’s a strange and beautiful thing when you first recognise yourself in a work of fiction. I did not immediately like everything I saw, either. But I did respect it. And that taught me an early lesson: if you do not respect yourself, you cannot write a single word that anyone will believe, even if – especially if - what you write is fiction.

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad

Then there is the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, from where the epigraph to The Break Line comes. It is a stunning, horrific, relentlessly compelling and above all searingly truthful account of the moral bankruptcy of European imperialism in Africa – and one that has in turn been accused (falsely, in my estimation) of being racist itself. Based on Conrad’s own personal experiences in the Congo, it expresses a profound outrage at man’s inhumanity to man that is at once authentic and simultaneously entertaining, which is in itself brutal. Heart of Darkness neither cajoles nor sermonises: it draws you in and makes you an accomplice to the abomination. Its power lies in making the reader question their own assumptions and imperatives, which is at best uncomfortable and at worst devastating. It was the first book that made me cry. 

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

Heart of Darkness revealed one literary Africa. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart revealed another. A deceptively simple story about a yam farmer who lives through the colonisation of Nigeria, the book is a depiction of the clash of Igbo traditions and Christian belief and the affect that has on the lives of everyone it touches. It’s impossible for me to overestimate the impact this novel had on me. Reading it fired my imagination to study African history, to listen to African voices and to beware of the exoticism of European literature. That in turn that compelled me to live and work in Africa – and especially west Africa – which I have done on and off for nearly two decades. Achebe himself dismissed the text of Heart of Darkness as racist. But for me the tension between these two narratives, their vastly different approaches and subsequent justifications is as inspiring as it is explosive.

In the Skin of a Lion

Michael Ondaatje

Finally, there is In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which takes pride of place. It is very hard to describe what this book means to me, because it feels like an experience that I have lived and not read and which I remember as fragments of a dream. A spell-binding prose-poem and gritty, magical ode to a lost generation of anonymous migrant workers who built Toronto in the 1930s, In the Skin of a Lion is a masterpiece of changing perspectives, the transformation of identity and the revelation of whole lives lived on the ragged margins of society. It is the most perfect story I have ever read, and the one that has influenced most what and why I write.

Of course, there are many other books that have fired my imagination and provided the foundation upon which the experience of reading those five books rests. Among those related directly to the writing of The Break Line are Homer’s Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible (especially The Book of Genesis) and Beowulf stand out. These four great pieces of literature have taught me two enduring truths: that a story told without moral purpose is not worth telling; and that a story that is not entertaining will not be read.

And as for the adventure-thriller genre itself – there are three specific books that inspired me to write The Break Line:  Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights; Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Finally, there are three authors that so profoundly influenced my life and how I have lived it that not to mention them would feel disrespectful. They are Patrick Leigh Fermor, Laurie Lee and Don McCullin: “On the shoulders of giants.”

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