Disha Acharya's Reviews > Going Solo

Going Solo by Roald Dahl
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Apr 09, 12

bookshelves: memoir-biography
Read from April 02 to 08, 2012

I have not hidden my review because of spoilers, since I am reviewing a memoir and not a novel of fiction, so it doesn’t matter even if I write about something which is potentially seen as a spoiler, it will only be a ‘detail’ of something the reader will already know about Roald Dahl’s life. Please note that I have generously interspersed memoir with novel and vice versa in the review.

O.K so here goes. I have given the book only three stars. I know mine will be an unpopular opinion and review but a review writer has to be honest and I can’t be dishonest with my reviews, that is not to say that other reviewers have been dishonest in giving it four or five stars but all I am saying is that I do not wish to mislead someone who is going to read my review and I don’t want to just give in to popular demand. So three stars it is.
1) I read this book on the recommendation ( yet again ) of my Best Friend, though I must by now realize that her taste vastly differs from mine and I should stick to books which I want to read and am curious about. Also, I am not going to read memoirs or biographies or auto-biographies for a long time now. I have never really liked reading them and I don’t want to make it a habit. Reading two in a row was quite enough for a year’s worth of reading biographies etc.
2) I digress. I need to focus on writing about the book, but it is very difficult to write a review for a memoir as it is essentially non-fiction and it is so difficult to comment on someone’s life story, this is a similar dilemma that I faced with ‘Lust For Life’ and which is why I say it is easier to write a review for an artist’s creation than about his/her life.
3) I still haven’t started the review so you can see how it is so difficult to ‘critically analyse’ a memoir. I think I prefer Roald Dahl’s fiction more than I enjoyed ‘Going Solo’, not that I have read many of his fiction, but I have read a couple of his short stories and his novel for children – ‘ The BFG’. My foremost problem with this book was the inherent racism. It is sometimes in your face and out- there but most of the times, it is subtle and paternalistic and condescending, which to put in layman’s words is called as the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Or rather I would say that Dahl seems to suffer from a ‘White Man’s Burden Syndrome’, he seems to be suffering acutely from it. One may accuse me of doing a post – colonial reading of a memoir or else reading too much into the book, but when the racism is so obvious and in your face, once cannot ignore it and it is offensive. I shall quote from the book as evidence.
‘It would seem that when the British live for years in a foul and sweaty climate among foreign people they maintain their sanity by allowing themselves to go slightly dotty.’ (pg. 3).
Further in a conversation that Dahl has with Ms. Trefusis aboard the ship bound for Africa.
‘People go quite barmy when they live too long in Africa.’ (pg .9).
So Dahl means to say that people who live in ‘sweaty’ climates (read Africa and India) are quite barmy and people who visit these people become ‘barmy’ if this is not racist then I don’t know what is!
As you must have noticed these were just the initial pages of the book and these lines were enough to turn me off and I found myself wanting to not read further! However, I did plod on for reading’s sake. His overt racism changed in to a covert one when he reaches Africa and he is staying at Dar-es Salaam; here he talks about being ‘treated like Princes.’ (pg .24) and how they had a ‘personal boy’ for each of them. (pg. 25). Further he talks about Mdisho, his ‘boy’ who was’ tall and graceful and soft – spoken, and his loyalty to me, his young white English master was absolute.’ (pg.25).
The first hundred pages of the book till the chapter ‘Flying Training’, the book is replete with such racist undertones and overtones and whatever ‘awe’ and ‘marvel’ that he feels for Africa etc. is trumped over by the blatant racism in the novel. I can’t resist adding how he is also racist towards his own European counterparts, in the chapter ‘Palestine and Syria’ where he recounts a ground strafe that he was part of –‘It was a Sunday morning and the French –men were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front –line aerodrome. (pg. 193). I must admit that I guffawed when I read this, if Dahl was making fun of the French as well, then well he was a general racist and did not just confine himself to the ‘ White Man’s Burden’ syndrome but also suffered from a ‘ British are the Best ‘ syndrome.
4) My second biggest problem with the book was the fact that the tome that Dahl uses. He is witty and sharp and sometimes even jocular and sardonic in his humour but I am not necessarily talking about the humour, I am talking about his tone- which tends to be extremely smug and over – confident. Why that matters and why I am pointing this out is the fact that Dahl paints the other character’s portraits in his memoir in a very condescending and a patronizing way, he seems to be saying that he is the best and he knows best and rest are all fools. This tone of his grates on this readers’ nerves as Dahl seems to know not what self – reflexivity means. He seems too full of himself and just plain smug. He keeps taking pot –shots at his seniors at the RAF and also paints unsavoury portraits of round about everyone else in the memoir. For example- the passenger whom we only know as U.N. Savory, is not only made fun but also ridiculed to a large extent. This dry wit or smugness (as I like to call it) definitely did not go down well with me. Not only was Dahl making fun of other people, he was being racist and of course patriarchal as well. The memoir is almost glaringly absent with women characters but of course it is a memoir and not a work of fiction. However, the one odd place he does took about women; he is patriarchal in the most terrible way possible. While aboard the SS Mantola, he learns from one of the ship’s officers that an Italian ship was also going south like the SS Mantola; was full of women who were being sent for the Italian soldiers’ entertainment. As if this was not terrible enough, instead of expressing his outrage at this unhappy and terrible event, Dahl goes on tell his readers- ‘I waved to the girls on the other ship and about 2,000 of them waved back at me. They seemed very cheerful. I wondered how long they would be feeling that way. (pg.22) Wow! I really wish that Dahl would exhibit some humaneness regards this incident but of course it was just too much for the asking, I guess! The only person in the novel who emerges as the ‘hero’ figure is Roald Dahl himself; surely other people in his life time must also count for something? Does not seem like that to me! The only sympathetic or ‘nice’ portrait that he gives us is of David Coke, perhaps only because he was to become the future Earl of Leicester, if he hadn’t passed away! The memoir reads something like this - ME! ME! ME!
5) People often comment on how it is so wonderful the way he has described Africa, Greece, and Syria etc. Frankly, I did not find anything so wonderful or amazing in his descriptions. What I mean to say is sure, he writes about all these places but he always writes about them as if they are ‘exotic’ and ‘strange’ but sometimes yes, he does talk about how he was so enamored by the beauty of the Grecian countryside etc. but those passages are few and far between. I mean I have read far better memoirs where the writers have talked about their love for nature or their being wonderstruck seeing the beauty of a particular place. Offhand it is difficult to give one right now, but the bottom-line is that Dahl’s description of the places he visits / stays are very ‘colonial’ and typical. Nothing different or amazing in his descriptions. I have read better.
6) Another grouse that I have with this memoir is the way he talks about the war. I mean it is war, but the way he talks about it is as if it is a young man’s adventure trip all paid for with thrills and rides or else it is a video game in which you are a RAF pilot. He talks about war in a very light way, as if the whole thing was fun! I am not saying that one talk about war in a very grim way (which one should because you know it is war!) but at least there can be some seriousness in one’s tone. Only here and there does he mention that people died or some fellow pilots passed away in combat. That is it. One line. Surely as a writer reminiscing about the war, he could have written a critique of it, written a paragraph on how horrible this whole business was! Something, anything! All we get are those few lines and ah yes, lines and paragraphs about he was young and how he was so brave and so intrepid, fearlessly flying, not afraid at all! Dahl, I feel is someone who is just too much in love with himself. A little too much for my liking as a reader of a memoir, which should have made him reflect on how he was all those years ago, but he does none of those things, he writes as if he was quite proud of his younger self. I am not in any way denigrating his contribution as a pilot or saying that he did not serve his country well or was a lousy pilot. All I am saying is that he was a wonderful pilot and it was amazing that he was a stalwart in times of crisis, but it would have been better if he had let the reader decide that for himself/ herself rather than rubbing it in the reader’s face repeatedly about he was so brave. If you know how amazing you are, you are not.
7) And finally, why I have bothered to give the novel at least three stars and not one. It is a memoir, a recounting of history and one has to validate someone’s personal history as it is as important as the Grand Narrative of History. Also, it was very interesting to read about Dahl’s life pre his writing days; it was fascinating to read about his stint at the RAF, I have extensively read war literature but never from a first person’s account, especially a RAF pilot. I got to know a lot about the different kinds of fighter planes – the Hurricanes, the Ju 88’s etc. The entire experience of Dahl’s as a pilot was very interesting. That is to say that, the book did not bore me. I did feel like reading further and was curious to know what would happen next. His liberal use of photographs juxtaposed with the narrative also added to the novelty of the book, making it more interesting. I would want to read the prequel ‘Boy’ simply because this memoir was a sequel and I think it is essential to read the prequel as well. Though I have critiqued the memoir heavily, I do think the future reader who reads this review should not shy away from reading the memoir, as I do feel that it is interesting to read about the war from a pilot’s perspective albeit a smug one! So, have a go at it but don’t expect too much and you might just be pleasantly surprised at the end, not to forget the fact that Dahl does write well, in an engaging way, inviting the reader to see the world with his eyes. (However, prejudiced they may be!) Probably, Dahl tries to showcase the war in a different light and in a different way, which I guess one might appreciate even if I did not. Also, one’s heart wells up at the end when Dahl returns home to his family, and his Mum has no idea that he is alive and well and has returned home! It was extremely touching and poignant to say the least!
I think I will end this rather long review by making it clear to the future reader that I have at last reached the conclusion, that I did not enjoy the book as I might have if I had liked Dahl the man, I only seem to like or appreciate Dahl the writer and not the man and therein lies my problem of writing reviews of memoirs.
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04/02/2012 page 21
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Veronica (new)

Veronica McIntyre r u here??


Disha Acharya Sorry hun! I just posted my review of ' Going Solo' put 'One Day' as currently reading and logged off. Will talk soon :)


message 3: by Antara (new)

Antara Bhatia I wont remark much on the matter of your review since we already discussed on phone . Just wanted to say that this is your best piece of writing on this site. It is clear, interesting, sharp and insightful. I like it when you attack things more than when you praise them because you are at your thoughtful and critical best then:)


message 4: by Antara (new)

Antara Bhatia Further, your observations are intelligent. I like or rather love his other books but i certainly think that the way people have given raving reviews on Solo is unjustified


Disha Acharya Antara wrote: "I wont remark much on the matter of your review since we already discussed on phone . Just wanted to say that this is your best piece of writing on this site. It is clear, interesting, sharp and in..." Yes, we had already discussed the matter at length on the phone :) Aww....thank you for taking the time for reading the review and also for praising it so much, that is so sweet of you Tra :) I am so touched to know that you likes this review and thought of it as my ' best piece' here :) Yeah, I guess I am bundle of criticism and that is what I can do best! HHhahaha! I like to praise as well though, if I like a book that is, which has become a rarity nowadays! :)


Disha Acharya Antara wrote: "Further, your observations are intelligent. I like or rather love his other books but i certainly think that the way people have given raving reviews on Solo is unjustified"
I am feeling so awesome to know that you found my review 'intelligent' as well! Yeah, I know how much you love his books, I am sorry that I don't share that passion with you, but you are right that giving five stars to this memoir of his seems rather unjustified to me at least :) Thanks again for commenting on the review :)


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