29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2007
In 'Sailor of Austria', John Biggins introduced Otto Prohaska, captain of an Austro-Hungarian submarine during the Great War. The tale is told from Prohaska's perspective as a 100-year old resident of a nursing home in rural Wales. Surprised by the interest of a young worker at the home, Prohaska sets about recording his story. This 'looking back' perspective allows a modern sardonic narrative voice somewhat in the manner of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.
The manner of telling is reminiscent of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman: A Novel (Flashman), as others have remarked, but darker. At times the book is laugh-out-loud funny - particularly early in the book when the dire consequences of a submarine crew fed on rotten cabbage stew leads to a serendipitous result. Biggins gives the reader a convincing sense of life and death aboard the absurdly primitive WW I submarines.
As the book moves into the later stages of the war, humor takes a backseat and tragedy takes center stage. Biggins' remarkable description of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire puts the reader amidst the shock and utter chaos of a crumbling world. And then the Spanish Flu makes its entrance.
It's exciting to see the renewed interest in John Biggins works, which were hardly big sellers when first published in 1991 but are now being brought back by McBooks Press. I was only recently put on to Biggins over on LibraryThing and the discovery's been one of those great unexpected experiences that come along only rare even to devoted readers.
Help rescue John Biggins from undeserved obscurity. The writing is really first-rate and so is the story. Highest recommendation.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Wonderful debut historical novel set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire circa WWI. The book is presented as the memoirs of a Polish Czech who served in the royal navy as a submarine commander. The bulk of the book focuses on his exploits in the fledgling submarine corps patrolling the Adriatic. Biggins is masterful at depicting the cramped life and sketchy technology of the earliest submarines. The detailed descriptions of combat are as gripping and engaging as anything in "The Hunt for Red October", with the added bonus that Biggins can actually write. It is a very strong historical novel which manages to depict a confusing time and place with total believability. Highly recommended for those interested in Central Europe circa WWI and those interested in military history. Followed by The Emperor's Coloured Coat and The Two-Headed Eagle.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Ignore the Kirkus Review and see what readers have to say. This is an extraordinary book. I read it perhaps two years ago, but it is unforgettable. One of the most enjoyable reads I've ever had. And a most unusual story. The life of a submariner in the Austro-Hungarian navy in the first world war? I think I learned a lot (the author is a scholar specializing in the history of that region) and it was a terribly amusing but realistic tale. I loaned it to a colleague with a love for sea stories, and he read it immediately and voraciously and was upset to find it was out-of-print as he wanted to send copies to friends. I rarely read books twice, but this is one I'd like to return to again and again.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Most naval fiction is Napoleonic. Most of what's left is of the US and can range from the American Revolution to modern times. That takes care of about 95% of all that is out there. Most of the rest falls into a few types as well but this book is completely different. Little is ever written of the First World War and even less is ever written of Austria. When you have a story that involves Austrian U boats in the First World War, you know you have found something very different from average. This is such a book. Even better, it is interesting and well written.
The books is a reminiscence of Otto Prohaska, an officer of the Habsburg monarchy. U Boats are still fairly new and are considered experimental. Otto does a good job of proving the technology and has a series of adventures in doing so. One of these involves trying to transport a live camel on a U Boat. The book has a sense of humor. It brings out some little known information about a neglected part of a seldom written of war. It is outstanding all around.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 1998
One of my favourite novels of the past decade. I think I've read it more than a dozen times and the appeal never fades. Not a conventional war story by any means, the book it most closely reminds me of, strangely, is Joseph Heller's classic "Catch 22". Although the books are poles apart, they are both concerned with the absurdity of war, but whereas "Catch 22" is black and manic, "A Sailor of Austria" is gently sardonic. Biggins accurately conveys the crumbling pretensions of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the utter meaninglessness of its military efforts in this tepid backwater of the War to end all Wars. Part of the allure of the story for me was the very obscurity of the campaign Biggins is describing. Prior to reading this I had no idea that Austro-Hungary even had a navy, let alone a submarine fleet. The depth of Biggin's research is obvious and extremely impressive. His hero and narrator, Otto Prohaska, is a likeable sea-dog, with a healthy cynicism regarding the doddering Empire he serves, but whose loyalty to that same crumbling edifice remains steadfast until it literally falls to pieces around him. The final scenes aboard his submarine as the Austro-Hungarian flag is taken down for the last time and his crew prepares to break up are among the the most moving in the book. The book has plenty more to recommend it - humour, romance, intrigue, in short a must-read for anyone interested in war and the sea.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2006
This is my first review ever and probably my last but I was delighted to see this work reissued after a long hiatus. This rather "obscure" author is in my view far superior to better known historical-fiction genre authors such as Cornwell (the Sharpe series), let alone Clancy. In a nutshell, not only does Biggins place you into the WWI submarine service, he transports you into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Navy with an accuracy and amusing flair rarely found. Alas, the set-up as an aging mariner in the UK is a bit tiresome but this is rapidly followed by his saga. I have read 3 other Biggins books; this is his first and best. I found it abandoned by a local library; for a while it was available online for a considerable price, so this is a bargain. Even though my military background is considerable, I needed to conduct some research to fully appreciate the nuances of this great saga of WWI. Dont hesitate to go to Wikipedia, e.g., to get a better feel for the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire and its military. I HIGHLY and UNRESERVEDLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK to anyone with an interest in naval history, the First World War or simply good prose by a vastly underrated author. As you read this saga, you must ask how better the world today might be if this Empire were still intact!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I wish to say "Thank You!" to reviewer Douglas Woods who brought this book to my attention. This is an absolutely delightful story about Austro-Hungarian Naval Officer Ottokar Prohaska who captained submarines for the Hapsburg Empire during the first World War. I really enjoyed this book and found it fascinating in many ways. I've always been interested in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but there is remarkably little fiction on the empire and I must say I learned a lot reading this book. Yes, the empire had a submarine service and our protagonist captains several submarines, but like most things in the Empire the service was a shambles and our friend Prohaska has many challenges ahead of him.
The novel was not as light-hearted as the title might give you reason to think, and it certainly had its sad parts too, but it was a delightful story told with heart, whimsy, and an engaging sense of self-deprecation at times. Told as a series of recollections by the 100 year old Prohaska while in a nursing home in Wales, the book is a wonderful story of how a rural, landlocked Czech boy rises to become a submariner in the first World War and about the trials the service, his ship, and his crew faced during that conflict.
The book also did a wonderful job of showing how the Empire worked, why it worked, and why it ultimately fell apart. The Empire had eleven different nationalities, all speaking different languages, and ethnicities that are still slaughtering each other today. The story of the Empire and how it bound those groups together cohesively for as long as it did was simply fascinating. I whole-heartedly recommend this book, and am eagerly waiting for the second book to arrive in the mail. The good news is that there are four books in this series, but that bad news is that it doesn't look like Mr. Biggins wrote anything else. He certainly deserves recognition for this series and a wider readership.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, this book is screamingly funny and tragic by turns. I can heartily recommend it to anyone with a penchant for sea stories or historical novels. If you can find the other Prohaska novels read those as well.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2006
A Sailor of Austria is the fictitious memoir of one Linienschiffleutnant Otto Prohaska, a U-boat commander in the Austro-Hungarian Navy during the Great War. As well as the difficulties of submarine warfare, the hero has to contend with various diplomatic problems as well. It was originally published in the early 1990s, and has been highly prized since then.
In summary, the book is excellent, a sort of Patrick O'Brian/George McDonald Fraser cross, but in the setting of the Navy of the moribund Dual Monarchy in the lesser-known conflict in the Mediterranean. The attention to detail is pretty near meticulous, as far as I can tell, given that while I have a reasonable general knowledge of the War, I don't have a detailed one on the Navy concerned - it all seems convincing to me. One extra good point is that the author has an impish sense of humour, that appears now and again and enlivens the text. The disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and just what that meant to the servicemen who remained loyal, is well covered. Importantly for us nitpickers, just about all the actions described could have occurred, though there are some very minor matters to quibble about, such as the Australian Light Horse using lances and there being more than one Handley-Page O/400 aeroplane in Palestine in 1918. These are very minor points.
If you're looking for very good Great War fiction, you could do very much worse than follow the career of Otto Prohaska.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Biggins' first three Otto Prohaska books were given to me as a gift by a friend who enjoys historical fiction. He loved them. I just liked them.
The story itself - a 100 year old Otto Prohaska, submarine commander in World War I, war hero, decorated by everyone over the years, relating his WWI adventures - is interesting, and the setting of a submarine in the Austro-Hungarian navy paddling back and forth in the Adriatic and the occasional trip to Africa, or the Middle East, is positively unique. Prohaska's exploits are episodically written, however, and there is at least one point at which just about anything you would dream up for a sub commander takes place. He is stuck on the bottom, is depth charged, drops armored cruisers and destroyers, runs blockades, is bombed by and takes out airships, goes ashore to meet various natives, is decorated and loses the occasional sub. In that sense, it might as well be Star Trek.
Further, I found the character of Prohaska himself to be a little tedious, and too precious by half. He finds himself in deep emotional turmoil when he, as a veteran soldier, founds he has killed a fair number of the enemy; finds True Love very early in the book, conveniently a sister of a shipmate, and remains completely and totally faithful to her for the duration of the book (a sailor?!), and of course is hypercompetant and never really makes a wrong decision while all around him others do. His decorations are well and truly earned. In one very important instance, where Otto has potentially made a serious mistake and his career not to mention personal life is at stake, it would have been a great plot point to see how he dealt with this...but then it turns out he was innocent all along. It was not to be. I felt cheated of the one moment of potential imperfection about the character. It's a little heavy handed, and there is little of the humor or humility of a Flashman novel.
Biggins is not much of a dialogue writer (especially as concerns Otto and his lady), and some of the situations are particularily stilted - like the way in which items from his distant past just pop up and jog his memory at the most frankly impossible times. This is clunky writing.
However, there is still much of interest. Biggins is at his best in describing life aboard a sub, the machines themselves, and the mechanical stuff involved. Further, the missions themselves are well explained and mostly credible. There are some humorous episodes (especially early in the book) and the discussion of the various ethnic groups and the falling apart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are well handled. (It turns out that virtually everyone is prejudiced against someone, except of course Otto himself.)
The book is better conceptualized than most historical fiction; but the characters are wooden, and frankly this will not stand up to anything by George Macdonald Fraser. Still, many readers looking for an unusual setting for historical fiction will enjoy it.