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Books: Moral Bite Going Solo

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

“There was the crack of a single rifle shot fired from the wood and the bald man who was holding me took the bullet right through his face. It was a horrible sight. His head seemed to splash open and little soft bits of grey stuff flew out in all directions.” Younger readers may be astonished that this graphic recollection comes from the author of durable children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Admirers of Roald Dahl’s “grownup” ^ stories (Kiss Kiss, Switch Bitch) should not be surprised. The passage, which appears in the second installment of Dahl’s memoirs, bears his stylistic signature: restraint balancing the macabre.

Dahl has seen more than his share of that, as Going Solo makes vividly plain. There is the aforementioned shooting, the climax of a bizarre episode in Tanganyika, where the author had gone in 1938 to work for the Shell Oil Co. When, a year later, World War II began in Europe, he was pressed into service by the British colonial government. His first job was to intern resident German civilians (Tanganyika was a German territory until the end of World War I). Dahl was supported by a handful of African militiamen, one of whom fired into a man’s face when he thought Bwana Roald was threatened.

Dahl, 6 ft., 6 in. tall, then found himself cramped in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth in Nairobi, Kenya, where he had enlisted in the R.A.F. After training, he was given an unfamiliar Gloster Gladiator and wrong directions to fly to a base in the Libyan Desert. He ran out of gas, crashed and spent six months recovering in Egypt. By the time he got back in the air, this time in a spiffy new Hurricane over Greece, the Luftwaffe dominated the skies. Dahl piloted one of a dozen planes sent up to meet some 200 enemy aircraft in the Battle of Athens. During these two years, 13 of the original 16 members of his flying class were killed, frequently in the face of overwhelming odds. His comment on the sacrifice has considerable moral bite: “In retrospect, one gasps at the waste of life.”

Dahl tells of his wartime adventures with an ordinariness of tone that contrasts with the ghastliness of his experiences. This, of course, is the preferred method for a successful horror story. Going Solo is much more: a brief, masterly remembrance of the gifts of youth and good luck.

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