Christopher Landon, Ice Cold in Alex (London: Cassell, 2004), 241pp
"Do you know the next drink I'm going to have? A beer, Tom. A bloody great, tall, ice-cold glass of Rheingold in that little bar off Mahomet Ali Square in Alex... and I'll buy you one, all of you one, because I'm bloody well going to get you there..." (pg. 94).
Christopher Landon's Ice Cold in Alex is a subtly brilliant novel that steadily gets better as it progresses. Initially, I found the prose rather more dense than I like, but as I became more accustomed to it I grew to appreciate it. Set during the North African campaign of World War Two, it follows two British army soldiers, two nurses and a South African soldier as they try to escape the German advance. Forced to cross the desert in their battered ambulance named KATY (who develops, as all great machines do, a personality of her own), their leader George Anson is driven on to their final destination of Alexandria by the promise of an ice-cold beer in a bar there (hence the title).
The character development in this novel is impressive, as all the characters have their own well-executed arcs - Anson in particular. Anson is an alcoholic, war-weary and failing in his command; his morale is, in one memorable phrase, "propped up with gin" (pg. 116). But when the chips are down he rediscovers his confidence and integrity, guiding the party through their trials and vowing not to touch a drop of alcohol until they reach that bar in Alexandria. Landon introduces the notion of 'Zerzura' or the 'wish-oasis' - that "when you are in danger - desperate - there's always something left to discover a little farther on" - whether something physical or just an idea, and that you can attain it "if one has the guts to carry on and look for it." (pg. 173). For Anson, it is the oft-eulogised prospect of an ice-cold beer that provides him with the determination and resolve to carry on. Like all great adventure/crossing the desert stories, whether fact or fiction, this novel is an ode to the perseverence of the human spirit.
Indeed, this tribute to the integrity of the human spirit is also evoked through the novel's subtle anti-war message. Little more than a decade after the end of World War Two, both the book and the film adaptation were notable for not portraying the Germans as evil adversaries. The adversary in Ice Cold in Alex is "the greater enemy" - the harsh nature of the desert (pg. 239), rather than a man who just happens to wear a different uniform. It is a novel about teamwork and redemption, struggle and reward. This gives the novel - which could easily have become stuffy, stiff-upper-lipped pot-boiler fare - a timeless quality which makes it an endearing read even more than 50 years after it was written.