“A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” So opens the second and ‘adult-based’ portion of Roald Dahl’s autobiography. He makes perfectly clear that this is not such a book, for autobiographies are full of useless and boring information. Dahl seeks to offer the reader some of the key memories he had during his early adult life, particularly serving in the Second World War. Accepting a job with the Shell Company, Dahl is soon shipped to the African continent, working particularly in Dar es Salaam, part of what is currently Tanzania. During his travel aboard a ship to reach the far shores, Dahl learns why the upper class held use of hands when eating in such low regard and the ‘daytime entertainment’ they found acceptable on deck. Arriving in Africa, Dahl uses all his patience and understanding as he undertook a complete culture shock, a world where wildlife ran the show and humans knew their place. While the scenery was spectacular and the people highly entertaining, the rumblings of war could be heard on the horizon. Dahl finds himself evacuated from the region, only to join the RAF to help Britain in the forthcoming Second World War. Lanky, yet determined, Dahl is an unlikely pilot-in-training before he became a key member of the effort in North Africa. While serving, Dahl is involved in a significant aerial accident, captured in a story he penned, eventually bastardised and published in the Saturday Evening Post. Dahl seeks to correct the narrative for the reader in this piece of writing, as if one might worry he was seeking to make himself seem overly heroic. The crash leaves Dahl with significant injury, his nose caved into his fractured skull (interesting for those who remember his childhood injury to the same nose), and he is required to remain in hospital for upwards of two months. While he convalesces, Dahl continues penning his weekly letters to his mother, though remains careful to censor his news, so as not to have the letters destroyed. Once healthy enough to fly again, Dahl heads out to serve in Greece, where he comes face to face with the Nazis, trying to hold the onslaught back and keep the Allies in control of the area. As the fighting intensified, Dahl dodges many a proverbial bullet and heads to the Middle East, where he sobers up to much of what was going on in the region and the European Theatre, learning of the extreme anti-Semitism or ignored undertone of the Nazi atrocities. As the reader is pulled deeper into the life of this wonderful author, Dahl uses his wonderful prose to breathe life into his life story. A must read for anyone who loves a story of humour and utter despair, all in short order.
Having recently completed the first volume in this first-person narrative, I wanted to take some time to explore the adult life of this man whose stories tantalised me throughout my childhood. As Dahl continues the story, boarding schools are replaced with African-style boardrooms (open air villages) and a collection of characters that only Dahl could dream up. Those Dahl mentions turned from being men recollected into individuals with complex backstories or who shaped Dahl in his intense battles in Africa and the war zones he discovered. Using a collection of his letters penned to his mother, Dahl is able to recall some of the minutiae, which helps substantiate his many adventures. Dahl outwardly admits the need to use this letters, both because of his age when writing the tale and the number of events that can mesh together in wartime. Crisp and humorous, Dahl is able to tell his story while keeping the reader spellbound, injecting passion for his situations on every page while not getting too wordy in his descriptions. A contrast to stories about chocolate-makers, giants, and fresh produce, this story (and its first volume) is not one to be passed over. It is yet another gem in the Roald Dahl collection.
Kudos, Mr. Dahl for this two-volume collection about your life prior to becoming the popular writer for which you are best remembered. I cannot wait to tackle some of your other works, adult- and child-centric alike.