A Sailor of Austria:
In which, without really intending to, Otto Prohaska becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire

John Biggins

McBooks Press 2005 [1991]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 https://dannyreviews.com/
In A Sailor of Austria John Biggins turns to one of the less popular settings for naval fiction, the Austro-Hungarian submarine fleet during the First World War. At age 101 in a nursing home in England, submarine commander Otto Prohaska looks back sixty years, describing his wartime exploits to a sympathetic nursing sister and a young workman.

There's plenty of action in A Sailor of Austria. Among other exploits, Prohaska describes how "in three years and seven months in the Mediterranean I sank an armoured cruiser, a destroyer, an armed liner and a submarine. I also sank or captured eleven merchant vessels totalling twenty-five thousand tonnes, shot down a dirigible airship and damaged a light cruiser, a destroyer, an armed trawler and at least two merchantmen." He and his crew also face more esoteric threats, from a camel, from flatulence, and ashore in Libya and Palestine. And at times the Austro-Hungarian imperial bureaucracy is more dangerous to Prohaska than the Italian, French and British fleets put together...

The background setting is vividly portrayed, both in its broad sweep and in its details: the intricacies of government and military hierarchies and titles, the privations and economic hardships of the war, and the lost world of the multi-ethnic Habsburg empire. Prohaska digresses to describe his family history and his home town, which has gone without an official name because the German, Czech, and Polish-speaking inhabitants can't agree on one. He himself speaks eight of the eleven official languages of the empire, while his final crew represents all of its nationalities. And some of the most moving parts of A Sailor of Austria come at the end, during the disintegration of the Empire, as Prohaska's crew is gradually separated into its ethnic components. This, along with the framing story, helps to make nostalgia a dominant emotion.

A Sailor of Austria is not a novel of character. Prohaska himself is fairly bloodless and the other figures, while many are memorable and distinctive, are little more than outlines (perhaps in keeping with the perspective of an old man looking back at his youth). Biggins' writing is most notable for its understated but probing humour, exploiting the follies of war and bureaucracy and the foibles of individual personalities with irony and wit but without malice, always remaining generous in spirit.

Like the best naval fiction, A Sailor of Austria will appeal to many who wouldn't normally touch war fiction. Comparisons with the classics of the genre are not particularly helpful; Biggins is distinctive enough that he can stand on his own.

November 2006

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Related reviews:
- John Biggins - The Emperor's Coloured Coat
- books about World War I
- more naval history + fiction
- more war fiction
%T A Sailor of Austria
%S In which, without really intending to, Otto Prohaska becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire
%A Biggins, John
%I McBooks Press
%D 2005 [1991]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 159013107X
%P 375pp