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Book 102: Hungary (English) – Fateless = Sorstalanság (Imre KERTÉSZ)


One man… was curious, and this made me smile a bit, as to whether I had seen the gas chambers. I said to him: “If I had, we wouldn’t be standing around talking now.” “Yes, of course,” he rejoined, but had there actually been any gas chambers, so I said, sure, there were gas chambers too, naturally, among other things; it all depends, I added, what type of person was in which camp. In Auschwitz, for instance, you could bet on it. “But in my case,” I noted, “I’ve come from Buchenwald.” “From where?” he asked, so I had to repeat it: “Buchenwald.” “So, from Buchenwald, then,” he nodded, and I said, “That’s right.” “Let’s get this straight, then,” he said in response, with a stiff, austere, yet somehow almost preachy face. “You, sir,” and I don’t know why but I was almost stunned by this very formal and, I would say, somewhat punctilious mode of address, “you have heard about the existence of gas chambers,” so I said, sure I had. “Nonetheless, sir,” he carried on with that same austerity of one who is restoring things to order and clarity, “you personally, however, did not ascertain this with your own eyes,” and I had to admit that I hadn’t. To that he merely remarked, “I see” and after giving a curt not strode away, stiffly, erectly, and as far as I could see, unless I was very much mistaken, satisfied in some manner.

As on the one hand the last survivors of the Nazi Holocaust are leaving us, and on the other hand an increasing number of countries in the world are beset by the rise of rabble-rousing populists or even neo-fascist parties (some of whom deny that the genocide even took place), it seems more urgent than ever that we listen to the horrors that happened then because of hatred – and tragically have happened several times since, as some of the stories in this project tell.
Gyuri is 15. Although he does not at first fully grasp what is happening, his father is being sent ‘away on labour service’, in fact to a concentration camp, and feels compelled to make over his lumberyard business to Sütő, a non-Jew (”completely aboveboard regarding his race”), without a receipt, hoping he will take care of it for the family.
In time, Gyuri himself won’t be spared the concentration camps. Kertész minutely describes what it feels like to be sent to camps. This is not exactly like what people necessarily assume, even those horrified by them.
There are moral dilemmas – what is the right decision, what is the right way to conduct oneself in such a horrifying situation, amidst the uncertainty (and self-delusion?) about what will happen.
This is an uncomfortable read (and not always in the way you might expect), but it’s a great work of literature and highly recommended. Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.

KERTÉSZ Imre (1929 – ), Fateless, translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, London, Vintage, 2006, ISBN 9780099502524
(also translated as Fatelessness)
First published in Budapest as Sorstalanság in 1975 

Book 96: Czech Rep. (English) – The Good Soldier Švejk = Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (Jaroslav HAŠEK)


The members of the commission… were remarkably divided in their conclusions about Švejk. Half of them insisted that Švejk was a ‘half-wit’, while the other half insisted he was a scoundrel who was trying to make fun of the war.
’It’ll be a bloody miracle,’ roared the chairman of the commission at Švejk, ‘if we don’t get the better of you.’
Švejk looked at the whole commission with the godlike composure of an innocent child.
The senior staff doctor came up close to Švejk:
’I’d like to know, you swine, what you’re thinking about now?’
’Humbly report, sir, I don’t think at all.’
’Himmeldonnerwetter,’ bawled one of the members of the commission, rattling his sabre. ‘So he doesn’t think at all. Why in God’s name don’t you think, you Siamese elephant?’
’Humbly report, I don’t think because that’s forbidden to soldiers on duty.’

The commission’s dilemma about the good soldier Švejk is also our dilemma. It’s impossible to know which Švejk is the real one. What is beyond doubt is that he became one of the greatest and most lovable characters in literature.
I don’t think there’s any need for a spoiler alert that the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the First World War and was soon to be no more; and after reading this hilarious account of its wartime activities there’s no need to wonder why.
It always remains ambiguous as to whether Švejk is a pure idiot or hard at work sabotaging the war effort.
He spends the war ‘trying to catch up with his battalion’ – or is he evading the war? And the same goes for his people – the Czechs were marched off by their Austrian and Hungarian masters to a war they had no interest in winning; it was not their empire. A lieutenant compares being Czech to being a member of a secret organisation. Czechoslovakia was one of the many captive nations that escaped when it disintegrated in 1918.
Švejk is always loitering around the periphery of the war, but that doesn’t stop him from changing its course.
Like Catch-22, the novel satirises the ridiculousness of the army system, if anyone should actually try to take it seriously. And I wonder if he inspired Forrest Gump?
Some of my favourite moments were the ciphers debacle, the blown up chauffeur who goes to army heaven, the army poster that Švejk takes literally, the woman whose every whim he obeys… No matter what the situation, Švejk has a story to tell and at one time even when asleep answers ‘Present!’ and starts to tell another tale, like that other great Czech invention, the robot…
Hašek died before finishing his masterpiece; but I like to think the war would have finished just as Švejk finally rejoined his batallion.

HAŠEK, Jaroslav (1883 – 1923), The Good Soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the world war, translated by Cecil Parrott, London, Penguin Classics, 2000, ISBN 978-0-140-44991-4
(originally published in Czech, 1926)

Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang  with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.

 

I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.

Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.

 

NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)

Book 90: Benin (French) – Doguicimi (Paul HAZOUMÉ)

 

Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.

[my translation]

 

When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.

Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.

The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.

It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.

 

HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711

English translation:

HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060

Book 84: South Sudan (English) – Beneath the Darkening Sky (Majok TULBA)

But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.

 

We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.

South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.

The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.

 

Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.

Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).

 

Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.

 

Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.

 

While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.

 

 

TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0

Book 82: Zimbabwe (English) – Bones (Chenjerai HOVE)

Today the sun has set. It will set again tomorrow. But you are not here to see it. That is the difference. Even the birds and the insects that sing, they sing the same way as they sang when you were here. But now that you are not here to hear them, that makes the difference. Suns will set, birds will sing, insects will sing, but the difference is in the ears that will hear them. Today your ears are not here to hear them with me. Your blood is not here to tell me what all the songs of the forests of the farm say.

 

‘Bones’ is the story of the vain search of a woman (Marita) for her son, gone to fight in the guerrilla war against the racist white Rhodesian regime that was to lead to Zimbabwe. Everyone seems to be obsessed with her. Her story is told by Janifa (who has been wooed by her son); the herbalist Marume; Chisaga, the white farmer’s cook (about whom we get a totally different impression from his own words than from Janifa’s); ‘the unknown woman’ at the mortuary who Marita tries to give a decent burial; and the more omnipresent view of ‘the spirits’. The farm owner is foul-mouthed and hated even if probably far from the worst that could have been pictured. What is might be his real name is never revealed, but he is called Manyepo “because you think we are always lying to you”.
The novel is all the more powerful because Hove doesn’t spell out or labour the differences between blacks and whites, or the history between them. They are there, but they are there for us to extract. Hove’s anger and revolutionary fervour are there and we feel them, but as if it were the heat from a furnace under the floor:

 

“A people that fears death will never enjoy freedom from the heavy chains of being called boys by people of the same age, men and women.”

 

If you expect a novel about a revolutionary war to be about men fighting the unjust regime, ‘Bones’ is not like that. It is about those left at home, and is told mainly through the women’s voices. And what shines through is that they are at least as heroic as the male soldiers. It is, as far as I can judge, another masterly success of a male writer writing about women with understanding, compassion and admiration.
The language of the novel, which is apparently rooted in Shona idiom, is quite wonderful, not poetic but as controlledX as poetry, majestic as a religious text but hypnotically readable, and scattered with delicious proverbs and phrases (I can’t tell if they are traditional or original), e.g. “A closed mouth is a cave in which to hide”. ‘Bones’ was yet another discovery of a great novel and a great writer who deserves far wider acclaim. One of the Heinemann African Writers Series, it is not very weighty (I read it in one day, coincidentally on Robert Mugabe’s 93rd birthday) but it is concentrated brilliance.
Published in Harare!

 

HOVE, Chenjerai (1956 – 2015): Bones, Harare: Baobab Books, 1988, ISBN 0-908311-03-6

Book 81: Somalia (English) – Maps (Nuruddin FARAH)

Before midnight, the old man’s leaf fell gently from the tree on the moon. It was a most gentle death. Hush. And the soft falling of the withered leaf didn’t even tease the well of Karin’s emotions, nor did it puncture the lacrymatory pockets. She didn’t cry, didn’t announce the departure of the old man’s soul to anyone until the following morning. She stayed by him, keeping his death all to herself. She lay by him in reverent silence, he dead, she alive – but you couldn’t have told the difference, so quiet was she beside him.

 

This is the first novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy.

It is basically an in-depth study of the evolving relationship between the Somali orphan Askar and Misra, an ethnic Ethiopian lady who comes to look after him. It takes place at the time of the largely forgotten Ogaden war (1977-8) between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Ogaden Desert is inhabited by Somalis but was (and is, after the Ethiopians reconquered it with the help of their then sponsor the USSR and its allies), occupied by Ethiopia. In what looks like a continuing theme for the world’s twilight nations, or regions, “it is easier ridding yourself of a colonialist from beyond the seas than it is to oust an African one.” (for ‘African’, insert ‘Asian’ or any of the other possibilities). However, I’m not convinced that Namibia should have been listed as an exception – by the time of the setting, the German colonialists were long gone, but the future Namibia was finding it very difficult to escape from its neighbour South Africa.

As is usual in war, Misra is accused of treason. Meanwhile, Askar’s relationship with her becomes both intimate and testy. He feels that he is faced with the impossible choice of having to betray either her or Somalia. Farah explores the psychology of this complicated link.

It took a long time for the significance of the title to be revealed, but maps become a symbol of the way that ‘truth’ is not one and unchangeable, just as the country’s borders are not immutable. It is not as easy to pin down as it should be. Going back to the map, the one hanging on your wall probably has something called ‘Somalia’ (and something called ‘Ethiopia’) separated by nice confident red lines. But one country blends into another, both in space (geographically and culturally) and time (historically). Since we started drawing neat lines across the landscape, it has never been the case that everyone belonging to a certain people will always find themselves on the ‘right’ side of the border. And as for Somalia itself – all nicely coloured yellow on my map – it currently doesn’t exist as a single entity. Somaliland (the part colonised by the British rather than the Italians) is de facto independent, as is Puntland, while violence-torn Somalia proper is in fact the most tenuous part of the land.

At the time I read it I was in the mood for something with a faster and more intricate plot. But it is a very good and thought-provoking novel.

 

FARRAH, Nuruddin (Nuuradiin Faarax) (1945 – ), Maps, New York, Arcade, 2016, ISBN 978-1-62872-585-8

Book 74: Kashmir (English) – The Collaborator (Mirza WAHEED)

 

Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’

 

This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.

 

WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9