Kaiyum reviews Nevil Shute’s classic novel, first published in 1951.
Combine the period just before, during and after WW2 in the UK with aircraft and aircraft maintenance. Mix with a friendship between a working-class Brit and a slightly older man, half-Chinese, half-Russian yet still a British subject. Add the spicy flavour of Bahrain, the Orient and Australia (with the none too subtle tones of the White Australia policy). Then cover with a colourful, thought-provoking sauce of a trans-cultural, pan-religious theme that Robert M. Pirsig later expands on in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Richard Bach in Illusions (1977) – the ‘metaphysics of quality’. Serve with varied side dishes and the result is a ‘damned good read’.
With some 24 books during a productive writing career, Shute himself considered this to be his very best novel. Films have been made of other stories such as Requiem for a Nun, On the Beach and, perhaps even better known, A Town like Alice.
Born in London in 1899, Nevil Shute served in both World Wars, and pursued a career as pilot and aeronautical engineer. With lots more happening in between (read more), he eventually emigrated to Australia in 1950, where he died in Melbourne in 1960 after suffering a stroke.
Life experience… and Shaklin
Round the Bend clearly includes, as do most of Shute’s books, personal beliefs and experiences. The accuracy with which he describes aircraft, motors, service schedules, landing strips in far-off places, local customs and more are clearly the result of his own observations.
One of the frequent themes, expanded on in this novel, is summed up in these two quotations:
“He took the words to the Buddha in the list of the blessed things, that a man ought to hear and see much in order to acquire knowledge, and of study all science that leads not to sin. He has been saying that in studying the stresses and the forces in the structure of an aircraft, the thermodynamics of an engine or the flow of current in the oscillating circuits of a radio transmitter, we are but following the injunctions of Gautama, who said expressly that we were to learn these things. The world is full of suffering and pain caused by our wrong desires and hatreds and illusions, and only knowledge can remove these causes of our suffering…
“… Right Thinking is indicated in Right Work, and Right Work in Right Thinking, because both are one. … No man cumbered with error in the Work can reach the state or Right Meditation…”
These statements refer to the second central character of the book, apart from the ‘story-teller’ himself (Tom Cutter) who ensures the continuity of the story. This is the slightly older friend, introduced as Connie Shaklin, but who later becomes known by the Oriental and Asian communities as Shak Lin, a more Chinese version of his name.
It is clear that Shute uses Shaklin as a vehicle for his own beliefs, and in this way presents a concept of universality that will be familiar to many readers who pursue their own spiritual (but non-dogmatic) practices.
The title and parallels
‘Round the bend’ is a polite but colloquial way of saying that someone is crazy, has lost his mind. Both Tom and Connie are described as ‘round the bend’, but for very different reasons: Tom, for his daring and far-sighted business ventures, Connie for how he steadfastly treads the path of Truth, even when his life is threatened and… well, for the consequences, you’ll have to read the book!
As already mentioned above, Pirsig writes further (and less excitingly) on the theme of ‘quality in work’, which is the key to what Shute propounds through Connie Shaklin’s work.
Bach’s ‘reluctant messiah’ – Donald Shimoda in Illusions – is in the end murdered for what he proclaims, makes possible and stands for. But, like Jesus, he knows what he’s letting himself in for.
When the authorities ask questions about Shaklin’s possible divinity, Tom three times denies it, reminiscent of Simon Peter’s three denials of Christ.
Tom credits the success of his business on his policy of exclusively hiring Asians and paying them fairly (although less than what Europeans demand). He also defends them from racist abuse – a clearly important issue for Shute, who here creates a platform for his beliefs and criticism of the White Australia policy.
All in all…
… Shute provides a ‘page-turning’ adventure with a broad range of themes. Yes, it’s now dated, so may appeal more to the older reader.
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