The Letter Bearer, by Robert Allison, Granta RRP£12.99, 272 pages

When we first encounter the letter bearer of this tremendous second world war novel, he is on his back in the Libyan desert, facing what appears to be imminent death. Behind him lies a ruined motorcycle, beside him a postbag still full of letters. Soon a passing German soldier will relieve the stricken “Tommy” of his pay-book and wristwatch. Bedouin scavengers will take his army ID card in the night.

Who is “the rider”, as he is referred to throughout the book? What brought him here? In his head plays the song he has chosen for his funeral, “Bye Bye Blackbird”, “its refrain rising above the descant of flies”. The tune is the nearest thing to a memory he can dredge up.

After salvation arrives in the unlikely form of a band of British Army deserters, the amnesiac motorcyclist is forced to consider what kind of a man he might be, deprived of the certainties of rank, class or reputation. “In seeking one’s identity it should come as no surprise to unearth more than a single nature,” he painfully discovers.

Robert Allison’s finely crafted debut is about courage and cowardice, and how the will to self-preserve may override and be overridden by nobler instincts. It’s also about the nature of fortune – not just the luck that decides whether a man lives or dies in wartime, but the turn of fate that determines whether he becomes a hero or a villain, or is forgotten entirely.

For the rider, the latter possibility is uniquely disturbing. Even as he chances upon the corpse of an Italian soldier crucified by villagers and eaten by animals, he observes: “There are mitigations. The man’s rank still shows. There are dog tags around his neck, giving his name. He will be found, his story will be made known, along with those famously tortured, who are remembered with greater enthusiasm than the prosaically killed. There is at least that.” In a small way, this quest for posterity is shared by the servicemen whose last letters fill the rider’s postbag, each seeking to make his story known.

With its Saharan setting and mysterious invalid, The Letter Bearer inevitably recalls Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Thickets of intense, opaque prose and some striking, hallucinatory descriptions of the desert bolster such comparisons. But, as the deserters seek to cross the sands in search of sanctuary, it’s the classic 1958 war movie Ice Cold in Alex that comes to mind.

The rider’s unchosen companions are a rum bunch, “each of them running from war while carrying the virus of it in their minds and spleens, the same malignancy persisting even in sanctuary”. Brinkhurst, the nearest this “corpus of the disaffected” has to a commanding officer, is self-serving and manipulative. Medical officer Mawdsley, “the archdeacon of opiates”, has a poorly concealed drug habit. The Italian prisoner of war, Lucky Lucchi, hides his nature behind his lack of English. Towering, or rather glowering, over them all is the thuggish Scot Lance Corporal Swann, “a man thrillingly at war with himself”, Caliban to Brinkhurst’s ineffectual Prospero.

Charting his characters’ bid for freedom, Allison writes powerfully – often thrillingly – about the nitty-gritty of conflict, from the kinetic energy of a firefight to the confusion of the fatally wounded and the smell of urine, grease and fear inside a tank. Death is never far away: for the rider, struggling to breathe with a crippled lung, it’s as likely to come from the elements as from the enemy.

To the deserters, war is not so much hell as purgatory. They have shed their pasts for good reason, while their futures are barely imaginable. At times, their quest for survival seems as incomprehensible as the gunboats in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness firing aimlessly into the jungle. The Letter Bearer beautifully conveys the loneliness of the soldiers’ predicament, as they play out an age-old story against a primordial landscape.

Yet, bleak as it is, the novel doesn’t entirely deny the possibility of redemption. For the rider, a sort of atonement can be found in his postbag and the credo that “we endure in the words we have written and thoughts we have laid out, each of us unimpeachable in that better version of ourselves”. It is left to the reader to decide whether that is enough.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Festival

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