Literature and War Readalong 2015 – Mini Edition

Literature and War Readalong 2015

For some of you it may come as a surprise that next year’s Literature and War Readalong contains only four titles, but I felt we needed a change. That’s why I chose only four books, from four different countries, focussing on three different wars. The list should appeal to those interested in international literature, books by prize winners, novels on international conflict, modern classics, books that have been made into movies and a lot more.

The Disappeared

March, Tuesday 31 2015

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

Here’s the blurb:

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.
Novel Without A Name.
May, Friday 29 2015

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Here is the blurb:

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.

Fateless

September, Wednesday 30 2015

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

Here is the blurb:

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

A Time To Love and a Time to Die

November, Friday 27

A Time to Love and a Time to DieZeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque (Germany, WWII, Novel, 384 pages.

It’s interesting to note that the German title isn’t as corny as the English one. It means “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” not Love and Die.

Here is the blurb:

From the quintessential author of wartime Germany, A Time to Love and a Time to Die echoes the harrowing insights of his masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.

After two years at the Russian front, Ernst Graeber finally receives three weeks’ leave. But since leaves have been canceled before, he decides not to write his parents, fearing he would just raise their hopes.

Then, when Graeber arrives home, he finds his house bombed to ruin and his parents nowhere in sight. Nobody knows if they are dead or alive. As his leave draws to a close, Graeber reaches out to Elisabeth, a childhood friend. Like him, she is imprisoned in a world she did not create. But in a time of war, love seems a world away. And sometimes, temporary comfort can lead to something unexpected and redeeming.

“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review

 

I will anounce each title with some additional information about six weeks before the discussion date. I hope you like the choices and will join me whenever you can.

Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu (1991) Literature and War Readalong December 2013

The Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu is the first (North) Vietnamese novel I’ve read. It is based on Ninh’s own experiences during the Vietnam war. We are used to read about the war in Vietnam from an US perspective and I was really curious to see how it would be treated by a North Vietnamese writer. I had a few expectations but none were met. The book was so much better than I had expected. It’s one of a very few war novels I’d say I really loved and if I had read it earlier this year, it would have made the Best of List. Reading this, you may possibly think it’s a perfect novel but it isn’t. It’s flawed but so intense, emotional, lyrical, tragic  and beautiful that I can easily forgive its shortcomings.

The Sorrow of War reminded me a lot of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The two books would make great companion reads. Both approach the story in a non-linear way and narrate episodes rather than a chronological story. Both books have strong metafictional aspects, but The Sorrow of War goes even one step further. We have a narrator who is at the same time a writer and a narrator who had similar experiences and finds the writer’s manuscript. When he talks about that manuscript he addresses the element that I have called “shortcomings” earlier and reading that one doubts whether it’s a real shortcoming or an effect that Bao Ninh wanted to achieve. Nevertheless, the book jumps back and forth in time and there are a lot of repetitions. Every time a scene is repeated a new element is added but it’s still often difficult to know who is telling something and when.

Where Tim O Brien’s and Bao Ninh’s novel differ completely is the tone. The Sorrows of War is much gentler, full of palpable sorrow and lyrical passages in which Kien, the writer-narrator, evokes beautiful moments. Kien has spent far over ten years at war and is a survivor. More than one platoon he’s been part of was wiped out. At the beginning of the book, in 1976, he’s part of a Missing-in-Action body collecting team. Somewhat later, after the war, we see him battle his demons; alcoholism, despair, nightmares, depression. He’s seen the worst. The depravity and cruelty of people and soldiers. One of the worst things happened at the very beginning of the war and is related to the love of Kien’s life, Phuong. The Sorrow of War is also a love story, the story of two people whose love was shattered by war. To read why and how and slowly discover the details is harrowing.

In the best passages of the book Kien renders episodes in which the kindness of people or the beauty of nature are contrasted with the ugliness of the battlefields. Another element I liked and which makes this very different from any of the US accounts I’ve read is the belief in ghosts and spirits. The violence with which the soldiers die turns many into ghosts. There is one part of the forest that the people have come to call the Jungle of the Screaming Souls. One of the drivers of the MIA body collecting team tells Kien that every time he drives by that battlefield a ghost joins him and wants to talk to him. What is interesting is that nobody doubts that there are ghosts. They are not scared because dead people try to talk to them but because they can feel the pain those ghosts had to endure before they died. The whole area is like one giant graveyard where all the souls are screaming and mourning constantly. Eerie.

Another element that makes this book so outstanding is that neither the Americans nor the South Vietnamese are ever demonized. Every person in this book is simply a human, thrown into this awful conflict for no better reason than politics.

At the end, Kien has written his book and leaves. Nobody knows where he has gone. He’s lost so much, there was no returning to the life as it had been before and now he’s lost as well.

I don’t know how typical of Vietnamese literature this is, but I’m determined to find out. If there are more writers like Bao Ninh I’d like to read them.

*******

The Sorrow of War was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The first book in 2014 is the American Civil War novel The Black Flower by Howard Bahr. Discussion starts on Friday 31 January, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977) Literature and War Readalong December 2012

https://beautyisasleepingcat.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/dispatches.jpg

Dispatches is Michael Herr’s account of his time in Vietnam as a front-line reporter. It’s an example of what is commonly called gonzo journalism as invented by Hunter S. Thompson. The beginning reminded me of William S. Burroughs’ books like Naked Lunch or Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Pure 60s writing, fragmented, high on dope and high-strung as well. Not my cup of tea anymore. I used to read this type of books as a teenager, nowadays I prefer more lyrical approaches with a stronger narrative.

What Herr tried to do in the beginning, is make the reader experience as close as possible, what it was like to be there. I thought it was difficult to follow. I lost interest more than once and couldn’t help comparing it to Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m afraid Dispatches doesn’t hold up. On the other hand it’s not fair to compare them because they are totally different. O’Brien’s novel is a blend of fiction and non-fiction with a lot of metafictional elements. Herr tries to tell it as it was. Whatever he describes, even though it is filtered through his experience, it’s still true while O’Brien embellished and made things up. Sure, we could argue that truth is relative anyway and that’s precisely what O’Brien did argue. Be it as it may, Herr didn’t consciously change anything to make it “more real”.

Dispatches consists of 6 parts and while I had problems with the first three, I really liked the last three called Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out. Illumination Rounds is a series of portraits of soldiers Herr met in Vietnam and shows the wide range of people. How some of them got affected so badly by the war that they didn’t want to go back home, got addicted to it, or got crazy. They are just small vignettes but I found each of them powerful. Colleagues was equally interesting. This time fellow reporters and photo journalists were at the center of the story. The most prominent ones being Sean Flynn, Erroll Flynn’s son, a photojournalist and Dana Stone, another reporter. The two men disappeared in 1970, on the Cambodian border were they were said to have been captured by communist guerillas and were never seen again. Quite a sad story, really. Both were friends of Michael Herr and while he isn’t too outspoken it is obvious that he felt deeply when he heard about their disappearance. I attached two tributes that I found on YouTube.

Breathing Out focusses on the return home and how everything just seemed so dull. Something that you see mentioned often in Vietnam accounts is that the soldiers enjoyed being there to some extent because it was so intense.

An important part of the book looks at how the journalists were treated. Many of the soldiers were glad to have them because they wanted people to know how it really was. There were some others who hated them for being there without having to but purely because they wanted to. This was precisely the reason why others admired them. It takes guts to go somewhere like that if you don’t have to. The reasons for the journalists in Herr’s account to be there were very rarely political. Some were adventurers and Vietnam was just a way to combine making money with traveling and experiencing something nobody else had experienced.

Reading this book made me wonder what this war would have been like if it had been fought in the 80s. It’s so much part of 60s culture and was so much influenced by it. What would it have been like without the pot smoking, the music, the attitude of the people?

One part that I found extremely interesting is when Herr writes that arriving in Vietnam took a lot of adjustment at first because they had all seen too many war movies and it took a while until it sank in that this were not just pictures flickering by. I always though that was a newer problem but I guess nowadays it is video games, not movies which blur the lines.

I really can’t say this isn’t a good book but I would have appreciated it more a few years ago and if I had read it some other time. In any case, it felt very authentic, very realistic, gritty but not too graphic. However if you are looking for background information on Vietnam, that’s not the book to turn to.

Other reviews

Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Danielle – A Work in Progress)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

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Dispatches was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The first in 2013 is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012), 240 pages – US – Iraq war.

Discussion starts on Monday 28 January, 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Tatjana Soli: The Lotus Eaters (2010) Literature and War Readalong October 2011

Soli’s debut revolves around three characters whose lives are affected by the Vietnam War. Helen Adams comes to Vietnam in the hopes of documenting the combat that took her brother from her. She immediately attracts the attention of the male journalists in the region, and quickly falls into an affair with the grizzled but darkly charismatic war photographer Sam Darrow. As Helen starts to make her own way as a photographer in Vietnam, drawing as much attention for her gender as for her work, Darrow sends her his Vietnamese assistant, Linh, a reluctant soldier who deserted the SVA in the wake of his wife’s death. While Linh wants nothing more than to escape the war, Darrow and Helen are consumed by it, unable to leave until the inevitable tragedy strikes. The strength here is in Soli’s vivid, beautiful depiction of war-torn Vietnam, from the dangers of the field, where death can be a single step away, to the emptiness of the Saigon streets in the final days of the American evacuation.

For one reason or the other I had a hard time getting into this novel. I struggled for almost 100 pages but all of a sudden I was hooked, fascinated and almost entranced. And I wanted to talk about it. I don’t always feel the urge to talk about what I’m reading but with this book, I felt it because the topics Soli chose are still as conflicting and important today, during any war, as they were at the time, in Vietnam.

The book starts in 1975 with the fall of Saigon and then switches back to 1963 and the moment when the young photojournalist Helen Adams arrives in Vietnam to cover the war. Helen is keen, eager and ambitious and a sensation as she is one of the first women photographers to want to cover a war.

Helen’s character is complex and interesting and through her we see the fascination and problems of this dangerous profession. Helen’s character is based on the stories of real photographers, one of them Dickey Chapelle, one of the first female war photographers who was killed in action.

There aren’t many professions that I find as problematic as war photographer and the novel does a fantastic job at letting us look into their world.

Helen knows from the start that if she wants to become a famous photographer, shoot interesting pictures, she must follow the men into combat. This is not only dangerous, it’s also voyeuristic because the photographers take pictures of everything. Dying soldiers, executed Vietnamese, piles of bodies, screaming children, in short, people during their final moments. They often wonder whether they are more than just vultures, whether it is justified to do what they are doing. On the other hand they get addicted to the high they experience in the heat of the action and the exhilaration that follows an incredible shot that will go on the cover of a magazine and will be seen by the whole word.

Helen and the others constantly oscillate between two states of mind, the selfish drive and the urge to help and reveal to the world what is going on. It seems as if this was a very addictive job and when the novel nears the end and at the same time the end of the war, there is a feeling in the air as if a party was over.

The danger cannot be underestimated. Not only the soldiers, whom Helen gets to like, are killed, many fellow photographers lose their lives as well. One could say the better the picture, the more dangerous the situation was for everyone involved and especially for the subjects.

An older woman from the group, a mother or aunt, screamed and ran forward toward the alcove, and one of the soldiers shot her. Captured on film. The curse of photojournalism was that a good picture necessitated the subject getting hurt or killed.

I was wondering why I always find it much more problematic when someone shoots a photo of a wounded or dying person but have far less of a problem when a reporter only tells or writes about it. Maybe because the dying people lose their privacy. In order to get a good shot, the photographer needs to focus on the pain, to invade the space of the other.

A the heart of The Lotus Eaters is a complex love story or rather the story of a love triangle. I was far less interested in that aspect of the book and that’s maybe why I didn’t like the beginning so much as it focuses a lot on that story line.

Soli manages to give a good feeling for the war. She captures how the war and its perception changed over time, shows how different its meaning was for those abroad, the Americans and Europeans who lived in Vietnam,  as well as for the Vietnamese people. In the beginning the presence of the French can still be felt.

The Americans called it “the Vietnam war”, and the Vietnamese called it “the American war” to differentiate it from “the French war” that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as “the Wars of Independence”. Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the colonial French.

The descriptions of the city, the country and the jungle are vivid and evocative. For that alone the book is worth reading. I equally liked how she managed to show what it meant for women to cover war. There are no women soldiers and when the female photographers follow a group into combat, they are the only women present which was problematic as well. There were sexual tensions and the fact that the men felt responsible for the women, furthermore they didn’t want to be seen injured or wounded by women.

When Helen goes back to the US for a while, in the late 60s, she tries to make people understand why she does this job. Helen explores her reasons very often and at one point she has to admit it is also because she excels at what she is doing.

“I just went as a lark. It turned into something else. What do you do if you have a hazardous talent, like riding over waterfalls in a barrel? A talent dangerous to your health?” After the question came out of her mouth, she felt embarrassed.

I’m glad I read The Lotus Eaters.  It has many beautiful passages and is very thought-provoking. It gives an in-depth view of one of the most dangerous professions without giving any easy answers. It’s up to the reader whether he thinks they are purely adrenaline addicted vultures or whether they are doing a heroic and admirable job.

I often wonder whether we need those pictures. Do we need to see the horror in detail, up close? Does it help stop wars? In one instance Helen says that every good war picture is an anti-war picture. Is that true and does it justify what they are doing?

I’m curious to hear what others thought.

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

 

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savy Verse & Wit)

Literature and War Readalong October 28 2011: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

lotus-eaters

Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters is another novel on the war in Vietnam that has received a lot of positive reviews. It cannot be called a classic as it only came out last year. So of all the books of this readalong it is by far the most recent. I really don’t know all that much about it and will therefore just add the blurb that should help you decide whether you’d like to read along or not.

As the fall of Saigon begins in 1975, two lovers make their way through the streets, desperately trying to catch one of the last planes out. Helen Adams, a photojournalist, must leave behind a war she has become addicted to and a devastated country she loves. Linh, her lover, must grapple with his own conflicting loyalties to the woman from whom he can’t bear to be parted, and his country.

Betrayal and self-sacrifice follows, echoing the pattern of their relationship over the war-torn years, beginning in the splendour of Angkor Wat, with jaded, cynical, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, Helen’s greatest love and fiercest competitor, driven by demons she can only hope to vanquish.

Spurred on by the need to get the truth of the war out to an international audience, and the immense personal cost this carries, Sam and Helen’s passionate and all-consuming love is tested to the limit. This mesmerising novel carries resonance across contemporary wars with questions of love and heart-breaking betrayal interwoven with the conflict.

After having been so impressed by Tim O’Brien’s book I think I will explore more literature on the war in Vietnam in the future and I’m looking forward to read Soli’s novel.

Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990) Literature and War Readalong September 2011

A sequence of stories about the Vietnam War, this book also has the unity of a novel, with recurring characters and interwoven strands of plot and theme. It aims to summarize America’s involvement in Vietnam, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed. I don’t normally rely so heavily on quotes but in this case, I think, the author is the best person to give an accurate impression of his excellent writing.

But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. (…) The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.

The Things They Carried is told in interwoven stories. They are linked through the characters who return in most of them and through the common themes of war and storytelling. Each of the tales shows another way of telling a story or looks at an episode from another angle. Some are explicitly written by a writer for his readers only, they have never been told before. Some describe how the soldiers tell each other stories of what happened while they were separated or how they keep on retelling the same stories over and over again. Telling these stories gives meaning and is also liberating and healing. Those who cannot tell stories, those who are shut up by what they saw, those are bad off.

What is so fascinating about this book is that you can just read it like a series of linked episodes or you can read each episode as an attempt to tell the story another way.

One of the most powerful chapters is certainly the first, the one that gave the book its title. Through the enumeration of the things the soldiers carry, we get to know the soldiers, we sense that some of them will die and some will be wounded. As we learn later many of the young men O’Brien served with and who are introduced too us in this first chapter, die. Some through enemy fire, some in accidents. Some deaths are heroic, others are ridiculous, like Kiowa’s who got shot and then suffocated in a field full of shit. What impressed me in this story is the description of the stress, the weight they had to lift, the endless walking.

They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.

We learn a lot about the feeling of having been in a war and in this particular war. We hear about the state of mind of the soldiers and what war did to them. There are some chapters that made me feel uncomfortable like the one of a young soldier’s girlfriend who stayed with them a few weeks, joined the Green Berets and ultimately disappeared in the night, swallowed by the war. She got addicted to the feeling of danger and the heightened sense of being alive that went with it. This is fascinating and also unsettling.

I have read other accounts of men who went to war, I know my own father’s stories but they sound different which leads me to the conclusion that some experiences were typical for the soldier in Vietnam.

The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event, at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay.

At the end of the book you have the whole story of Tim O’Brien’s time in Vietnam. From the day when he got the letter that informed him that he was drafted, to the first days in Vietnam, all through the weeks that passed, all the things that happened, the friends he found, the friends he lost and how he ended up feeling like an outcast because he was sent away from his company after he was wounded and had to do some light duty in another camp. Maybe not all of this is true, as O’Brien writes, but a lot of what is made up is closer to what really happened than that what is just the plain unadorned truth.

Here is my favourite quote:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The Things They Carried is fascinating and powerful. Writing at its very best.

I hope others have read it as well and liked it as much. I would also like to hear how it compares to Matterhorn.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Season

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2011: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien has become a classic of American literature and the genre of “war writing”. O’Brien served in Vietnam which gives his writing a poignancy not every writer can achieve.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this since months as I am also highly interested in its form. The Things They Carried should work as a collection of short stories and as a novel.

O’Brien has written other books that are highly acclaimed like If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. I chose to read The Things They Carried because I have read excerpts of the book in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer that made me very curious.

Numerous novels have been written on the Vietnam war. So far I have only read Machine Dreams by Jane Anne Phillips. I got Matterhorn and the October readalong title by Tatjana Soli The Lotus Eaters on my TBR pile. Another book that impressed me, although not a novel, was Dear America – Letters Home from Vietnam.

Do you have any other suggestions?