Here’s a life for you: Raised by your grandfather and three odd aunts. Reclaimed by your spiritualist parents when the aunts go doolally. Married into a Sicilian family (probably mafiosi), then separated from your partner by WWII — your partner hobnobs with Central American dictators while you shunt from base to base in North Africa, trying to convince Allied NCOs that the Arabs aren’t worthless miscreants. At war’s end, reunited with your partner only to divorce almost immediately, but still friendly with Sicilian in-laws.
Lewis’s memoir shows us a series of flights from one insanity to another. Wales (crazy aunts), to Enfield (spiritualism), to London (Sicilian in-laws), to Algeria and Tunis (anti-Arab everything). If you can’t fathom Arab hatred for the West, the section on Lewis’s experiences as a translator and intelligence officer will tell you all you need. Example: standard practice when bringing in Arab boys for questioning was first to stomp on their feet with one’s jackboots. Everything starts with blood and pain.
Lewis could do nothing to address Arab complains about treatment by the French, or to lessen retribution against the local population once the British were gone — as he expected, entire villages were massacred when the British forces left to invade Italy.
Lewis’s writing is quick and sharp, with minimal lyricism. The night before England declares war on Germany, he witnesses a hurricane’s arrival in Cuba:
[The sea] had fallen slack, but something seemed to be on the move under its polished surface as if a shoal of whales were about to surface. The sky curdled and darkened, throwing grey veils across the sun…. Some miles out to sea a dark cloud, dense and fleshy as a negro’s hand, pressed down on the water and was now rapidly expanding, and in a far corner of the field of vision the delicate wisp of a water spout joined sea and sky.
The small town of Nuevitas stretched into a promontory pointing at the great Cay of Sabinas and within minutes a wall of water charged into it. As it struck, the cay appeared to put up a crest of white water from one end to another, and we looked up to see thousands of sea-birds flying before the hurricane, like grey ash from a conflagration blown across the sky. As the shacks clustered on the headland caught the first lash of the wind, walls and thatches were snatched away. The next gust pelted us with airborne debris of all kinds, rocked the car on its springs and cracked a window.
It’s impossible to read this and not think of the destruction to come during WWII.