by John Biggins
McBooks Press, 2005. 376.
Maps, illus.. $19.95. ISBN: 159013107X
Submarines lend themselves readily to tales of seafaring adventure, both in fiction and the movies. In 1987, John Biggins, an English author, came across a set of old photographs of the Austro-Hungarian submarine service. These inspired him to write A Sailor of Austria, the first in a series of novels chronicling the adventures of Otto Prohaska, a Lieutenant in the Imperial-and-Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, and captain of a U-Boat in the First World War, when submarine warfare was still in its infancy.
We first meet Prohaska at the age of 101, living in a nursing home in England, and writing his memoirs of undersea warfare. This device is a bit reminiscent of George MacDonald Fraser’s immortal hero Flashman. But Prohaska is no Flashman. Fraser’s Harry Flashman was a comic antihero, bullying, cowardly and licentious. Flashman was the antithesis of the Victorian hero he was mistaken for. Prohaska is brave, intrepid, and honorable. But like the Flashman books, A Sailor of Austria certainly has its comic moments. Biggins has a fine sense of humor, and a sense of the absurd, which serves him well in telling Prohaska’s story. Prohaska may be a good man, but he’s fighting for a decaying and ridiculous empire on its last legs.
Prohaska begins his U-Boat career in 1915, commanding an American built Holland type boat, already obsolescent when the war began. By today’s standards, submarines of the period were quite primitive, and extremely hazardous to yhose who served in them. So in addition to hostile Allied navies, Prohaska faces toxic gasoline fumes, tainted food, exploding toilets, and other hazards quite unknown to the nuclear submarines of today. Biggins has done his homework, and it shows. His knowledge of World War I submarines is impressive, as is his knowledge of the complexities of Austro-Hungarian society, culture, and politics. The result is an engrossing tale of war at sea, fought in submarines that were as likely to kill their own crews as they were to sink the enemy.
As the war grinds on, Prohaska is promoted to command more advanced and capable boats, but the empire for which he fights is disintegrating around him. A Sailor of Austria follows Prohaska through a war that includes convoy battles, secret missions, and many hairbreadth escapes. John Biggins is a deeply talented storyteller. In Otto Prohaska, brave defender of a clueless empire on the skids, he has truly created a hero for our time.
Note: Since the original publication of A Sailor of Austria in 1991, Biggins had written several other novels about the adventures of Otto Prohaska, before and during the Great War, including
Tomorrow the World: In which Cadet Otto Prohaska Carries the Habsburg Empire's Civilizing Mission to the Entirely Unreceptive Peoples of Africa and Oceania
The Emperor's Coloured Coat: In Which Otto Prohaska, Hero of the Habsburg Empire, Has an Interesting Time While Not Quite Managing to Avert the First World War
and The Two-Headed Eagle: In Which Otto Prohaska Takes a Break as the Habsburg Empire's Leading U-boat Ace and Does Something Even More Thanklessly Dangerous (2006)