When reading novels about WWII you are usually shown the perspective of women and men from countries involved in fighting the conflict. However, I haven’t come across many representations of countries that maintained neutrality. So I’ve found it fascinating reading two recent novels which do this: Rose Tremain’s novel “The Gustav Sonata” which portrays the long term consequences for a Swiss officer and his family drawn into a serious moral conflict and Dermot Bolger’s new novel “The Lonely Sea and Sky” which is based on a historical incident where a small Irish ship chose to save 168 shipwrecked German sailors in 1943. The question of whether to save these men from drowning is more difficult than it first appears: some German forces sank Irish vessels (frequently as target practice) despite their nation's neutrality and there was also the risk that the Germans might take control of the Irish ship once they had boarded and outnumbered the seamen. Their country might have been neutral, but they lived in a world at war. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a 14 year old Irish boy named Jack who joins the crew of a shipping vessel called the Kerlogue. He needs to mature quickly for a hard life at sea and he's confronted with many moral dilemmas posed in this dramatic journey. Bolger creates a personal, heartrending and atmospheric tale of the lives of these Irish sailors during a period of great international conflict.
Jack recently lost his father who was also a sailor; he never returned from his last ill-fated expedition. It’s left his mother and multiple siblings on the brink of starvation. Even though he is technically underage, he finagles his way into joining this shipping vessel’s crew. Jack’s discovery process along his first voyage at sea has many layers. The difficulty of sailing is vividly created as Jack becomes accustomed to seasickness, hard duties and navigating the social structure of a tightly compressed group of men. There is a hierarchy of rank which must be respected and sailors must tread carefully to not enquire too much about any sailor’s problems – such as a particularly troubled man named Mr Walton. Rather than neglecting each other’s emotional wellbeing this is seen as a sign of respect. Since some of the crew sailed with his father, it’s touching how Jack discovers parts of what was his father’s daily life and character which were previously unknown to him.
Jack is also introduced to foreign cultures and attitudes in the Welsh and Portuguese ports where they stop for cargo or customs inspections. He’s led a very sheltered existence up until this point in his small Irish town of Wexford which was “dominated not by fear of an all-seeing God but by a terror that neighbours might think you lacked respectability.” Out in the world he’s free to make his own choices away from the prying eyes of familiars. He has a particularly striking encounter in Lisbon with a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman named Katerina who has eluded capture and has improvised a difficult new life for herself. Bolger writes with great sensitivity and detail about Katerina’s complex psychology and the conflict and hardship she faces. Her presence in Jack's mind also gives Jack more complex opinions when faced with the moral challenges ahead.
The novel shows that rather than existing wholly outside the conflict, “neutral” nations were forced to make compromises or concede in certain respects to German or Allied forces. The cook who Jack works for on the ship remarks at one point “Ireland is the only neutral country gaining nothing from this war,’ he said. ‘The Portuguese happily trade with the British and, at the same time, they flog tungsten to the Nazis to armour-plate their tanks. The Swedes supply the Germans with iron ore and Swiss banks can barely close their vaults, they’re so crammed with looted Nazi gold.” Although these other nations clearly suffered hardships and strains during the war which was detrimental to their economies and people, it's interesting to think about the precarious position of neutrality and how some people might have used the war to their benefit. It's also interesting to learn how the IRA briefly considered siding with Hitler's Germany in the hopes of creating a re-united Irish nation with the north.
More than any political arguments or issues of allegiance, what comes through in the novel is the sailors' essential humanity. They see themselves in a kind of brotherhood with any man who sails at sea because the living is so difficult and fraught with danger. Faced with drowning men, they couldn't allow sailors to perish whether they were soldiers that posed a threat to them or not. The consequences of rescuing them may have impacted the crew of the Kerlogue negatively: it ostracised them from the British as their priority was getting them to the nearest port in Ireland for medical attention and from the Germans for not returning their men. It also led the crew to losing their cargo and any profit they'd make from their long journey – something they could ill afford to do while living on the brink of poverty. However, their action has assured these brave sailors a heroic place in history as having done the right thing in an extremely difficult time. Dermot Bolger has done them justice in producing such a finely crafted and extremely readable tale which brings their story to life.