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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Generals

Per Wahlöö

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Generals

Title: The Generals
Author: Per Wahlöö
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 1974)
Length: 278 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Generals - US
The Generals - UK
The Generals - Canada
Die Generale - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Generalerna
  • Translated by Joan Tate

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Our Assessment:

B- : good idea, but doesn't do enough with it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 24/2/1974 Godfrey Smith
TLS . 19/4/1974 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "But at a time when Solzhenitsyn's exile has reminded us so vividly of the reality, this satire on the wanton abuse of ultimate power seems hamfisted where it seeks to be serious, and unfunny where it tries to be comic." - Godfrey Smith, Sunday Times

  • "The shape taken by the novel is original, but it is an originality which works against narrative pace and interests. (...) Mr Wahloo's thriller-writer skill injects some tension into the situation, yet such a method would have hampered the most ingenious and economical of writers." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Generals is a novel entirely in dialogue, presented as the transcript of the sixteen days (spread over several months) of a court martial (though including much of the incidental chit-chat as well as the official proceedings). Erwin Velder is charged with 127 offences, but one can hardly say he's accused of them: there's no doubt about his guilt in this kangaroo-court, and the purpose of these proceedings is to serve as a sort of show trial (though, in fact, almost none of it takes place in front of an audience).
       The current head of state, under whom Velder served in the local armed forces, has a special interest in the case, as the participants are reminded:

I must repeat that the Chief of State demands all possible care in this investigation. We may not avoid any truths or facts. Neither must we forget that Velder as a phenomenon is unique. he is now the only living person who has survived all the phases in our national development from anarchy to model state.
       The testimony in the 'trial' then reveals the history of the island-state where the action takes (and took) place -- and, of course, it turns out that the so-called anarchic state was much more idyllic than what proves to be a totalitarian horror right now.
       The island was, for a while, a sort of utopia, a country with: "no official standpoints, either in matters of belief or any other matters". There are no laws, and the only punishment is deportation. But economically the country fares very well, living off of carefully controlled tourism -- as visitors are drawn to the place because of the brothels (staffed by foreign recruits) and gambling opportunities. For a while, it's a sort of mini-paradise -- until one of the locals thinks things aren't going well and tries to shake things up, demanding a referendum be held on how the country is to be governed in future, arguing for the build-up of an army and for recovering those "spiritual values that have been dragged through the mud and which will soon be irretrievably lost". And, of course, he volunteers to be the one to lead the country down this necessary new path.
       The proposition for change is overwhelmingly defeated -- though as one of the local leaders points out, the victory is not as clear-cut as the vote-tally itself suggests: anyone who even bothered to vote is already on the wrong side: if so many (seventeen per cent of the population) allowed themselves: "to be duped into partaking in a meaningless referendum" they already had a big problem. The bigger problem turns out to be that the General Oswald behind the referendum wasn't going to accept defeat, and launched a coup instead. He can't take over the country entirely, immediately, and a protracted civil war breaks out, with the violent unrest and insecurity continuing to this day. Among the amusing asides during the hearings are the absences of various members, as they are involved in the power struggles still going on on the island.
       Even as the court tries to re-write history -- as: what General Oswald did was glorious, saving the country from decadent collapse and protecting it from foreign hostility -- enough is revealed in the day-to-day proceedings to show that the country has collapsed completely. It goes as far as the simple trial-conditions, the constant complaints about the non-functioning heating and cooling systems in the room (which no one can repair).
       Velder is a broken man, willing to go along with everything that's required of him; revealingly, even that is barely enough here, so obvious is it that the current regime is entirely in the wrong. In preparation for his trial Velder has been 'softened up' -- and, indeed, one of the problems they have is keeping him alive for the duration of the proceedings. His interrogator insists he hasn't been tortured -- but does admit there was some "surgical intervention" to help "stimulate the effort of will". So Velder is literally a broken man, as he has endured:
Five amputations, one eye operation, and partial castration.
       They have a go at him during a break in the proceedings as well, and by the end he's barely able to function any longer, tending towards collapse -- slowing things down again. As one participant asks at one point, with considerable irritation:
What's the matter with Velder now ? Same old coma ?
       All of this is the stuff of decent political satire, but, despite some inspired touches, Wahlöö doesn't run with it nearly as much as he could. Instead, he bogs things down in the accounts of the military conflicts on the island, dragging the whole story down with it.
       It's not easy to write a novel just in dialogue, and Wahlöö does do a solid job of bringing some of the characters and events to life despite that (with the to-be-expected tricks of letters and other accounts being read into testimony), but it's the basic story, the contrast of utopia and military nightmare, that he doesn't elaborate nearly enough on.
       The Generals is of some, but ultimately very limited interest.

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The Generals: Reviews: Per Wahlöö: Books by Per Wahlöö under review: Books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Per Wahlöö (1926-1975) is best known for the Martin Beck-series he co-authored with his wife, Maj Sjöwall.

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