Thursday, September 29, 2011

An unusual mix of airplanes and religion

Round the Bend, Nevil Shute

This book wasn't part of the Nevil Shute library loot that I posted about last month; it has actually been sitting on the TBR pile for several years now.  But adding the new books to the TBR pile reminded me of this one, and when I was at something of a loose end after finishing The Sisters of Sinai, I picked it up.

Round the Bend was originally published in 1951, and the copy I have is a Heinemann reprint from 1969, a hardback.  I hadn't noticed that the dust jacket says nothing about the book; there is no blurb or synopsis, only four brief review quotes.  I can't think the last time I started a book knowing almost nothing about it.

As I read, though, I began to get the feeling that I had read this before.  Perhaps I did, in one of my previous Nevil Shute reading binges.  Or perhaps that feeling of déjà lu came from the book's subject matter, because this is one of Shute's mystical books, like In the Wet and An Old Captivity, stories of reincarnation.  Round the Bend is a story about religion, and the unlikely Teacher who proclaims it.

Because this is Nevil Shute, it's also a story about airplanes.  The narrator is Tom Cutter, who as a boy in Southampton in the 1930s falls in love with airplanes.  From a working-class background, he secures an apprenticeship in the industry, training first as an engineer and then as a pilot.  When the war comes, his firm sends him to Egypt to run their repair operations, and he spends several years traveling around the Middle East.  He returns there, to Bahrain, after the war and the disastrous end of his brief marriage.  With a single plane, he establishes an air transport company, serving the booming oil industry.

His company is unique in that he employs native pilots, engineers and ground crews.  This is in part because his years in the Middle East have taught him a tolerance unusual for a man of his time and background.  He can see beyond stereotypes, and while not entirely free of prejudice himself, he rejects the unthinking racism of his contemporaries.  But his inclusiveness has a practical aspect as well: employing Arabs and Asians makes good business sense for someone hoping to do business in the Middle East and Asia, and their salary scales are lower than he would have to pay European recruits.

On a layover in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), Tom meets an old friend from his early flying days, Constantine Shaklin, whom he recruits for his new company.  As a teenager, Connie was fascinated by religion, attending services in mosques, temples, and churches.  The son of a Chinese father and Russian mother, he has returned to the Far East and continued his study of religion, particularly Buddhism.  In Bahrain, Tom is somewhat startled to find Connie preaching in the airplane hangars, as the men work.  Many of the group are Muslim, and Connie's teachings are put in Muslim terms, but he is preaching a gospel of work and accountability, a religion of engineering and maintenance:
"With every piece of work you do, with every nut you tighten down, with every filter that you clean or every tappet that you set, pause at each stage and turn to Mecca, and fold your hands, and humbly ask the All-Seeing God to put into your heart the knowledge whether the work that you have done has been good or ill . . . So that if the work is good you may proceed in peace, and if it is ill you may do it over again, or come to me and I will help you to do well before God."
Connie's workplace homilies begin to draw large crowds, not just from the company, but men from the neighboring city, and even beyond.  When he travels with Tom in the course of business, he is met at the airports by large crowds, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, waiting to hear him speak.  While his Chief Engineer is becoming The Teacher, Tom is still trying to build his business, and the story is divided between the growth of this new faith and of the business.  In this second aspect, it reminded me of Ruined City and A Town Like Alice.  Nevil Shute started his own airplane firm in the 1930s, and he must have drawn on that experience in writing this book.  The details of the business, especially the different types of planes that Tom buys and the cargoes they carry, while typical of his books, can be a bit overwhelming.

The faith that Connie is preaching seems to echo the ancient Benedictine spirituality of "work is prayer, and prayer is work."  I found the spiritual part of the story less compelling than the business side, which takes Tom's company into Pakistan, India, Siam, Singapore, Indochina, and even to Australia, at a time of rising tension between European colonizers and native peoples seeking autonomy.  I was unreasonably irritated by the eventual fates of two major characters, and I found the ending of the story rather unsatisfying.  But on the whole this is an interesting and unusual book, reminding me again that there is a variety to Nevil Shute's books that defies easy classification.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!