This entry concerns the marvellous Danish anti-war writer, Sven Hassel. Perhaps the very definition of pulp fiction, and so terminally out of fashion that he's only actually popular in Finland. His books have been out-of-print in the English language for many years now, but Sven Hassel did have his time in the '60s and '70s when he was a world-wide best-seller and his books were traded in every school playground on the planet as important research material for 'The Game Of War'. Now is the time to re-read those same stories.
Fortunately, for the hooked, his 14 novels still turn up on a regular basis in charity shops and car-boot sales - their titles, artwork and sleeve notes rarely containing anything relevant to the subtle anecdotes and wild adventures within. Pick one up for a few pennies, you will be entranced.
Who is Sven Hassel?
The first novel published under the name of Sven Hassel was The Legion Of The Damned in 1957. It is a quite stunning story describing the adventures of a deserter from the German army in WWII; many believe this book at least to be true, even if the rest of the series appears to be of a more 'made-up' nature. Sven Hassel is still alive today, he lives in Barcelona and is apparently writing a new book at the moment1. He has recently regained full rights to his own books (and the film of Wheels Of Terror) and is apparently negotiating a new deal with English-language publishers.
Two somewhat slightly different and long-debated biographies of Sven Hassel are in common circulation:
Version one is The Official Biography which is pieced together from various book covers, film brochures and interviews. It is a credibility-stretching tale wherein our man escapes unemployment in Denmark before the war, emigrates to Germany (because it's not as far as England), joins the German army, deserts, gets caught, ends up in terrifying penal battalion on the Russian Front (and France, Poland, Italy, The Balkans etc), finally survives war to write a mighty tribute to his fallen comrades and a massive literary success follows.
Version Two has been written by a Danish journalist named Erik Haaest who seems to have a hatred for Sven Hassel which may be slightly perpendicular to the rational. His version is, in fact, approximately five times as unbelievable as the official biography - and that's saying something. Apparently, Hassel spent the war at home in occupied Denmark, dressed in Gestapo uniforms and went round pretending to be Himmler (or something like that). He also stole bicycles from the citizens of Copenhagen and donated them to the grateful Nazi-party. He spent a couple of years in prison after the war and met loads of Danish SS veterans2 from whom he picked up very detailed accounts of the war in Russia. He then got a ghost writer to make up his first novel and, when that was a major literary success, got his wife to write the rest of the books (that's when she wasn't involved in running a huge and thoroughly disgusting porn business across Europe.) Haaest's web site makes for a most entertaining read on a wet Sunday afternoon. The strange thing is that his version is regularly quoted as fact across any number of Internet newsgroups.
Basically, trying to find out who Sven Hassel actually is a loser's game, but it's fun to take part anyway.
Why would Anyone want to Read these Books?
Sven Hassel's novels have a major effect on one's outlook vis-à-vis life. Take a quick read through one of the books and you will find that you suddenly have absolutely no respect for authority, a rabid distrust of anything political, religious or dull and a healthy craving for beer, cheating at cards and very large ladies. Your culinary skills will suddenly be in great demand and you will never want to go to sleep again. You will not consider Saving Private Ryan to be in any way a realistic interpretation of war.
The books were translated into English by a number of people and the quality is therefore somewhat diverse, from Sverre Lyngstad's masterful translation of Comrades Of War to Tim Bowie's odd pulp-fiction Cockney-accented versions of the later novels. But you're looking at a kind of brew-up of Catch-22 and All Quiet On The Western Front, laced with a selection of vivid characters. And the king of them all is Joseph Porta - 'Corporal by the grace of God in Hitler's Nazi Army', storyteller extraordinaire, master chef, musician, panzer driver and expert baiter of all in authority.
As with a favourite band's albums, it is hard for a die-hard fan to recommend a favourite book. Fortunately, Sven Hassel's novels don't appear to run in any particular chronological or geographical order so just dive in with the first one you come across.
Got any Examples?
Sven Hassel's longer, more involved anecdotes may well have you chuckling as you might to PG Wodehouse. Perhaps one or two shorter quotes from the stories might lure the passing reader:
From March Battalion:
(The hated Captain Lander receives the section back from a long patrol.)
We had the odd feeling that he was not really pleased to see us. However, three days later his body was found riddled with bullets in a thicket, and it hardly seemed respectful to the dead to go on doubting him. As usual, it was the partisans who were held responsible for the murder, although some people did, indeed, raise their eyebrows in the direction of Porta and Tiny. In the end they had to take the extreme measure of attending the Captain's funeral in order to prove their innocence.
From Reign Of Hell:
Away to my left, Gregor was in the middle of telling Lenzing the long and garbled story of how he had once moved a grand piano from the fifth floor of a house down a spiral staircase without getting so much as a scratch on it. Somehow a brothel and a naked Swedish whore with breasts like pumpkins came into the story as well, but for the life of me I couldn't make out quite how, and neither, from the look on his face, could Lenzing.
He was posted to a miserable frontier district, where the people were so suspicious of one another that they took their bikes in to church with them, which is a thing they do in certain parts of France...
From Comrades Of War:
(Tiny at the whorehouse in Hamburg.)
Hello girls, here I am again. Hot as hell. My balls are boiling. I love you. Let's get something to drink in a hurry, and then we'll go to the bunks according to good custom when decent people meet.
The 14 Novels
Sven Hassel's 14 published novels are:
- The Legion of the Damned
- Wheels of Terror
- Comrades of War
- Assignment Gestapo
- Monte Casino (aka The Beast Regiment')
- Liquidate Paris
- March Battalion
- Reign of Hell
- The Bloody Road to Death
- Court Martial
- OGPU Prison
- The Commissar