All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, is probably the most famous work of literature set in World War I. If there was a corresponding work set in the southeast Asia theater of World War II, I would nominate Trial By Battle. Written by David Piper, an art historian who later became “Sir David” and led the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, it is a brilliant work of semi-autobiographical fiction. Haunting and profound, Trial by Battle is an outstanding novel that is worthy of literary scholarship. It is the kind of literature that makes graduate students reach for theory. Many thanks to the Imperial War Museum for reissuing this fine book.
The novel focuses on the experience of a young intellectual swept up in the horrors of war. Alan Mart is our thin, thoughtful, and all-too-sensitive hero who turns into a killer. The war does that to everyone who wants to survive. Born into the upper class, Mart is an officer by default. A thinker, he has little connection with the troops he commands, the natives he encounters, and his fellow officers. The book opens in India, as the Japanese military is capturing gigantic swaths of the British empire in southeast Asia, and then moves to Malay. The Japanese are the looming military threat to everyone’s existence. They take no prisoners, the men regularly repeat, and in that environment, what can one do? The jungle, its humidity and impenetrable vegetation, is ominous and oppressive, almost character in its own right. There is little in the environment that does not need to be confronted, battled or bypassed.
Mart struggles to make sense of who he is, why he is there, and the placement and motives of others. He is a thoughtful soul. Piper spins out an outstanding inner dialogue. The action, though, is far from intellectual. Mart’s guide, mentor, tormentor and nemesis is a long-time soldier, Sam Holl. An alcoholic and adrenaline junkie, Holl’s behavior and comments offer a way for Mart and the reader to get a handle on the bigger picture of the war. There is no one truth. It’s a complex endeavor, with little clear consequence for action, either good or bad. Characters, just like people in real life, when given the opportunity for agency, may or may not take advantage of possibilities and they may or may not receive the benefits. For reasons that he does not fully understand, Mart turns down a safer and less impactful role as a translator. Does he seek the trial by battle? Is he trying to prove himself? He misses his fiance terribly. Piper’s text provides a searing sense of what it must have been like, far from home in an dangerous place, to try to lead and make sensible decisions – whatever sensible means. Circumstances and environment distort and complicate everything. And all this takes place while hoping not to be killed by a more organized foe.
Stating the Piper’s prose is excellent does not do it justice. He writes as though all non-essential parts of the story have been excised. What remains is powerful and lyrical.
Piper’s experience was the basis for the novel. As recounted by his son, Piper enlisted and served in the war in southeast Asia. He was captured at the age of twenty-one. Time in a Japanese POW camp nearly killed him. Though Piper had a wildly successful career in the arts, the wartime horrors profoundly affected him. He did not discuss it with his family. His wife was a model for Mart’s fiancee. It was only in the 1950s, long after returning to Britain, that Piper was able to get his thoughts down on paper.
I hope that crafting Trial by Battle was more than therapeutic for David Piper. While the novel may have been a way for Piper to process his horrific wartime experience, it is a frightfully good work of prose. Had he chosen a career as a novelist, I have no doubt that he would have been wildly successful. As it is, I’m most grateful that he survived his own World War II trial.