Saturday, September 22, 2012

Q: War - what is it good for? A: Absolutely nothing, with the exception of some brilliant art and literature

It apparently being International Book Week, I took part in the recent Facebook meme that's been doing the rounds: pick up the nearest book to you, turn to p. 52, find the fifth sentence and post it as your status. My contribution was: "We bring a stretcher." The instruction was to not reveal the title of the book in question, but I'm about to in this case - and no, it's not something by Ernest Hemingway...

The sentence actually comes from Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel Im Westen nichts Neues, better known in translation as All Quiet On The Western Front, and the reason it was close at hand was that I've been meaning to write about it for ages and hadn't got around to it. So, thanks International Book Week for the much-needed prompt.

What soon occurred to me about the book is that it must surely have been on PJ Harvey's recent reading list. If, like me, you were struck by the extraordinary imagery of Let England Shake and wondered where she might have taken her inspiration from, this novel surely provides the answer, containing as it does descriptions of everything from the scorched earth to the horrific sight of limbs, heads and torsos hanging in the trees. Such descriptions aren't rendered excessively poetic (Remarque thereby successfully making the voice of his young first-person narrator Paul Baumer credible), but instead possess a visceral, not to mention frequently gut-churning, power - my advice would be to avoid dipping in while eating your lunch... Lest we forget, this was a time when combatants did still often come face to face and eye to eye (in which case it was a straight matter of survival - kill or be killed) rather than being separated by a desensitising distance, when the push of a button can be the equivalent of pulling countless triggers.

The novel's underlying message - of the futility and horror of war - may be predictable enough, but it's powerfully delivered and, with the lessons of history still not being heeded, bears continued repetition nearly a century after the book was first published. Beyond the depiction of the relentless violence, Remarque captures a sense of the drudgery and tedium of life as a soldier, often suffering at the hands of power-crazed superiors who (perhaps deliberately) mistake sadistic abuse for discipline. Perhaps more surprising are the passages about Baumer's time away from the front at home, the young soldier finding himself confronted with opinionated people with no concept of combat and alienated from those who can't begin to comprehend what he's witnessed, ultimately left feeling increasingly institutionalised within the army and craving a return to the comforting camaraderie of life in the trenches. While some of the older men are able to recall the pre-war period of having a job and a family, Baumer and his companions simply don't know any post-education life other than that in the trenches, their young lives decimated by a conflict they can neither comprehend nor escape.

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