Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Bookshelf: The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud
For a while I was convinced that I wouldn’t ever find an English copy of WAGES OF FEAR (the book) outside of a rare books dealer or a library’s special collections. Still, I would look, and at one library my inquistiveness unexpectedly paid off. The copy seems to date from the early 50s and I’m surprised it’s still in circulation, but I’m not going to argue. Instead let’s just enjoy a classic thriller, one which inspired two equally-brilliant film adaptations yet has somehow disappeared from the US book trade.
The book takes place in Guatemala (and somehow neither movie mentioned this), in Las Piedras, a town dominated by an American oil company. An explosion at one of their derricks leaves the company with a fire to put out quickly, and doing so requires that a quantity of volatile nitroglycerine (the only kind worth having) be hauled with great delicacy across 200 miles of treacherous jungle roads. The company puts out a call that is answered by four desperate men; all foreigners, hiding from crime or debt, hoping to buy their way out of the poverty-ridden hellhole. The focus of the book settles on Gerard, a Frenchman and former smuggler with ambitions of buying a boat, and Johnny, a twitchy Romanian fleeing a death sentence.
The book is short and tersely written, despite a few meditations on fear and its effects on people, how it both helps and hinders us. (The translation by Norman Dale is smooth enough, with a few clunky passages.) This is at heart a page turner, one to be blazed through in a few days at the most. It’s a form of novel that’s been tragically sidelined by modern publishing- nowadays even the trashiest of books is a disappointment if it doesn’t make it to 300 pages. In fact, I find it almost ironic that both film versions of this seemed to devote more attention to developing the characters. Speaking of the films, I can now definitely say that the original French version (which I need to get to reviewing sometime, if only to complete the triptych) is closer to this, but both took some interesting liberties.
The lack of space devoted to character development is sometimes to the book’s detriment, but the exploration of the relationship between Gerard and Johnny is quite well done. Gerard resents Johnny’s cowardice, but an inevitable comraderie develops. Where Arnaud really excels is in the attention to detail; according to the book jacket, he was taken prisoner in WWII, escaped to Latin America, and worked at a number of odd jobs, truck driving being one of them. The mechanics of moving a truck across bad roads as delicately as possible are, understandably, a huge part of the story, and with his own experience as an aid to research, Arnaud makes every step of the journey seem authentic. It’s the sort of thing that I have to seethe with envy at, because it would take me a solid six years buried in technical manuals to even begin to fabricate something as plausible.
At heart, THE WAGES OF FEAR is a good read, overshadowed by the cinematic genius it inspired but a compelling book nonetheless. It’s a damn shame that it’s been allowed to drift out of print; I’ll regret having to return this copy, that’s for sure, and you know what Amazon resellers are like. So keep your eyes peeled, or if you feel so inclined, start boning up on your French.