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Terror in the Jungle: Brilliant Wartime Literature

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.

David Potash

Warring on the Home Front

At first glance, To All the Living might seem like a strangely situated novel, looking at factory life in WWII England. Give it a read, though, and it opens up into an extremely interesting tale, filled with drama and a profound appreciation for all characters. It’s a fascinating book. And while not the most innovative works of literature, it flashes more than a few moments of true brilliance. Makes sense, too, as its author, Monica Felton, was an extraordinary person. The Imperial War Museum is so right in naming this a classic.

The story centers around the workers at the Blimpton ammunition factory in Dustborough. Naming is humorous and apt. Miss Creed oversees the women who do much of the labor. Public relations for the enterprise is headed by Otway Dolphin. Small details, flourishes and asides are thoughtfully employed throughout. Felton shares a great deal, with skill and sometimes surprisingly few words.

Drama emerges through the complex interplay of workers and the pressures on the factory. It takes place during the early years of WWII, when Britain’s continued existence was at stake. That big-picture dread is on the horizon, while the characters also wrestle with everyday challenges and fears. Much of the actual work is making ammunition for artillery, a toxic and dangerous business. Young women, sold on the idea of making money – remember, options were quite limited – and helping the war effort, are the labor force. Necessarily they are stressed, often unhappy, and trying to figure out their place within a rapidly changing world. Bureaucratic wrangling and structural incompetence adds another layer of complexity. Though set many years ago, the novel will ring true to anyone who has worked in a politically driven multi-tiered organization.

Felton, a committed feminist, gives her female characters authentic voice. Ground-up narration in the third person, building a series of interlocking stories from multiple perspectives, shapes the text. There’s humor, wit, and more than a fair share of criticism, formal and informal. The book also has romance, colorful characters (despite the dreariness of Dustborough), politics at the local and national level, and a very keen ear for the hidden battles that are woven throughout workplaces.

Felton, a PhD from the London School of Economics, was a town planner, elected official, and serious political player. She worked in Britain’s Ministry of Supply during the early years of the war, too, giving her the direct material for much of the book. Felton clearly was an extraordinarily thoughtful woman and it is evident that To All the Living was not written solely for entertainment. She had important ideas that she wanted to convey. That struck me as quite similar to much of George Elliot’s literature. Both women used plot, characters and conflict to bring to life broader issues, especially the opportunities and constraints defining women’s lives.

Really good novel from a brilliant author – I heartily recommend To All the Living. It has relevance today.

David Potash

Beautifully Rendered Trauma and Memory in Idaho

Well-crafted literature builds a world of words that feels real, that rings true, that we can picture in our minds and yet we know is fiction. When done well, it asks not for the reader to suspend belief so much as to bypass the very concern. It drives us to consider different perspectives, opening our minds. It stretches our empathy and understanding, and sometimes even our humanity. Idaho, Emily Ruskovich‘s first novel, does this well. It is creative writing grounded in deep respect for its characters and the world that they inhabit. It is about forgiveness, memory, sin and friendship.

The book opens with a mystery: a wife, sitting in the family’s old and rarely-used pickup truck, is struggling to make sense of the life and trauma of her husband’s first family. Something awful happened and he is suffering from early-onset dementia. The first wife is in prison. Children are gone. There seems to be little but clues, fragmented memories and imagined images. We can picture the truck, the farm, the people as figures within a vast and indifferent landscape. The book’s themes of trauma and memory are introduced early and woven throughout, yet they do not seemed forced or artificial. As the chapters increase, we meet the first wife, learn about courtship and family, close and extended, friends and foes, and the expanse of rural Idaho.

A mother’s violence toward her children – an unexplainable and horrific act – functions as the keystone of the plot. However, Ruskovich is not writing a mystery and the aim is not explication. Rather, as chapters jump back and forth in time and are told from different character’s perspectives, we see the power of kindness emerge as a force for understanding and for making meaning. Characters wrestle with loss – of people, or place, of agency and of memories.

Ruskovich does not hurry us along. She writes beautifully and gives each character their due. Every voice contributes. Reading the novel requires attention. Details – imagined or “real” – are sprinkled throughout. These particularities function on two levels, as touchstones for the characters and as markers for readers. Idaho is mapped. She is particularly strong when it comes to silences. It is often the things not said, the language between the words, that reveals. Ruskovich writes about these meaningful gaps with care and precision.

Idaho, ultimately, is a book about what it means to care about others. While Ruskovich does not withhold judgment, her prose emphasizes the humanity of the characters – regardless of their actions. The book’s goodness works against the inexplicable act of violence at its core. Accordingly, reading the novel leaves us in an interesting place. We are not omniscient so much as gifted with radical empathy. It is not understanding so much as awareness. It is a feeling that will stay with you. It will be how I remember this impressive book.

David Potash

Contemporary French Horror

“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”

From that ice cold and clinical horrific opening, Leila Slimani‘s The Perfect Nanny draws us in, enrages us, engages us, disgusts us and toys with us. The best-selling novel of France in 2016 under the title “Chanson Douce” (Lullaby), the book was translated into English and re-titled with something more appropriate for the American reader. It is a difficult and unforgettable read, even though the text moves quickly with pacing akin to a potboiler. Rarely have I wanted to turn the page – and dreaded turning the page – with the same intensity. I finished it in one sitting. A few days later, went back to re-read certain sections.

The story is about the murder of two children by their nanny. Inspired by a New York City case, Slimani stated, the novel is its own creation, a study of Parisian life and work. This is not non-fiction dressed up. It is an invention, a creative endeavor, with most of the trappings of fact. There’s a precision to it. Slimani spins out her tale with journalistic precision. She has worked as a reporter and it shows.

In The Perfect Nanny there are no surprises, no hidden secrets. It opens with the murder, goes back in time, and finishes with the children’s death. Slimani avoids moralizing and speculation. She handles her characters with care and attention. We see the why and how of the relationships between children and nanny, children and parents, parents and nanny, and between the father and mother. Each of the characters are drawn as complex, imperfect people. They feel real.

The absence of a larger sense-making is dark. On the other hand, it is often authentic. Why or how could something like the murder of two children happen? There can be no reasons, no explanation.

Slimani writes very well but very good writing is no guarantee of a best-seller. True crime and crime in general are also popular, but they, too, do not automatically generate sales. What makes The Perfect Nanny so effective is the mix of topic and style. Slimani tapped into a primal fear, one that can grab every parent by the heart and not let go. There are few important novels about motherhood, and fewer still that map out a horror like this. It is both extraordinary and, in Slimani’s hand, all too possible. The parents at the heart of the film make reasonable choices. Far from perfect, they are also far from indifferent. Their everyday qualities, like that of their children, bring the horror home. They are two professionals, working to make better lives for themselves and their family, dependent upon others.

The Perfect Nanny is a horror story well-suited the twenty-first century, a crime of violence without meaning or catharsis.

David Potash

A Dark Road, Indeed

Ma Jian’s 2014 novel, The Dark Road, is a haunting literary indictment of China’s one-child policy as described through the lives of one family. A painter turned award-winning writer, Jian is a creative and vocal critic of the Chinese state. He has such a compelling voice, in fact, that cannot live in the country safely. The the Chinese government has confiscated and destroyed his works. Now in London, Jian and his partner have a family of four children.

China’s one-child policy was enacted in the late 1970s after decades of a two-child rule. Designed to rein in population growth, the policy was about more than family planning. Formally it permitted families one child and should they have a second pregnancy, mandatory contraception, fines, forced abortions and sterilization. In practice, those with money and political connections were often able to by-pass the strictures. For those with less agency, like the family in The Dark Road, the lived experience was horrific and more encompassing.

Jian’s research for the novel took him to the countryside, where he posed as a reporter and asked everyday people how they coped with the government, the changing economy, and the impact of the one-child rule. The consequences were devastating. They collectively fold themselves into an omnipresent state that grinds the hope and humanity out of its citizens. Beyond the horrors of forced contraception, abortions, sterilizations and the systemic eradication of people’s interior life, the book offers a window on the caustic transactional society costs. If you cannot own your own body, what rights and hope are possible? Jiang gets this, and is able to describe it with a sense of immediacy – often with the dark humor that gives people the strength to shoulder on in the face of impossible conditions.

The hero of the novel is Meilin, a young and intelligent peasant woman without an education who marries Kongzi, a school teacher. They have a daughter, Nannan. Kongzi wants a male heir, though, and the resulting pregnancy leads the family to seek an alternative life on the Yangtze River. Jobs and family lost, the family struggles, with misfortune, some joys, and everyday life proving ever more difficult.

At the heart of the book is Meilin’s sense of agency, and her ownership – and lack, thereof – of her body and womb. She suffers mightily through the book. It reminded me of Zola, in naturalistic style, spelling out the contrast between what lives inside a person and what society allows. It is a terrible thing to contemplate, yet Jian’s storytelling skills carry us along to what we know will cannot be resolved positively.

David Potash

The Narrow Road

A brilliant big novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize in 2015 among many other well-deserved awards. It is an outstanding work, a book that will grab you, engage you and keep you thinking.

Richard Flanagan is the author. An Australian born in Tasmania, Flanagan has written non-fiction, novels, short stories and screen plays. He is prolific and if the critics and editors are to be believed, just about everything he puts his mind to, he does well. He is rightly considered one of the most important writers in the world today.

The Narrow Road is a story about love, betrayal, loss, fame, leadership, and above all else, the horrors that Australian POWs faced in World War II as slaves for the Japanese in the construction of the Burmese railway. Flanagan’s father was a POW who lived through it. It was his father’s stories, Flanagan has recounted, that inspired the novel. In real life and in every sense of the word, it was a truly awful history.

In Flanagan’s account, the bigger historical narrative is captured through the actions, reactions, and struggles of multiple characters. Reading it, I thought of Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace. That chapter famously retells the conflict through the “fog of war.” It is scary, confusing, and messy, giving the reader a powerful sense of just how incomprehensible “history” can be when experienced without a clear narrative. It is overwhelming and, in many ways, unknowable. Only later can it be comprehended, if at all. Flanagan’s characters, trapped in the jungle, live, work and die in just such an unknowable situation. When we are in history, we have little but our convictions to assure us of outcomes.

Flanagan does details with great care; they are haunting and revealing. Especially compelling is Flanagan’s commitment to his characters. He treats each with consideration and care, even the war criminals. I found myself thinking about them as “people” – and wondering, after I finished the book, about particular plot choices and actions. My sense is that Flanagan is most interested in a certain kind of authenticity, a fidelity to a character, a moment, and place. Plotting is important to him, too, but it is not an aggressively plotted work.

Flanagan’s narrative moves effectively across time, space and scope. The success and somewhat “ruined” life of our main character is the thread, the anchor, and reference point. However, the book is really about much, much more than the life of Dorrigo Evans and the tremendous tensions between his public life as a hero and his private pains.

Big picture questions and themes are very effectively explored, weaving together a novel that is memorable and expansive. It has all the heft and weight of literature with a capital “L.” All things considered, it is probably best characterized as a novel whose key theme is history, not people. In that it differs from Dr. Zhivago, for example, a love story set against a sweeping historical drama. Here, and probably much more truthfully, is history rearranging the lives of all that it touches. But the novel is not didactic. The Narrow Road is enough of a page turner that it could be comfortably found in a bookstore under fiction, or perhaps historical fiction. I had trouble putting it down.

I heartily recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

David Potash

Barth’s Early Efforts

John Barth has a well-deserved reputation as one of the more important American writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. His 1960 novel The Sot Weed Factor is a brilliant mash up of Fielding, Sterne, and probably a little South American magic realism. I recommend it heartily. It turns out, too, that novel did not spring from his head, fully formed. He tried and tried again before finding his voice – and success.

The two shorter novels that Barth write in the 1950s are The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. Conveniently enough, they can often be found in one thick volume. They are both philosophical; Barth stated that he was interested in exploring nihilism. Both feature a smart and untrustworthy first person narrator. The first is woven around questions of the meaning of life and suicide. The second is about absolutism and abortion. There are moments of satirical humor in both, but the overall weight of ideas and consequences colors the writing. In other words, both are intelligent but somewhat bitter books.

I would wager that perhaps one of the ways that Barth matured as a writer was by abandoning, to a certain degree, both the over the top intelligence and the bitterness. Yes, his literature remains incredibly informed and intellectually interesting. Somehow, though, his need to show it lessened. Along similar lines, his later work is imbued with greater patience and empathy for his characters situation and foibles. He allows the unfolding story to own much of the tragedy and conflict.

Stated differently, when we stop being angry young men we can share.

I wouldn’t rush out to read The Floating Opera or The End of the Road. However, if you find yourself with time and a copy, you could do much worse than to sit down and imagine an ambitious English professor finding the time to create these two extremely interesting works of literature. John Barth is a very good writer.

David Potash

Nemirovsky Belongs

There’s something fundamentally appealing – and just a little strange – about the Everyman’s Library. You’ve probably seen their volumes at a used book store. In fact, it’s impossible not to find them at a used book stores. Everyman’s are ubiquitous, with volumes on pretty much every classic work. The idea, thought of by an English publisher, began in 1905 as a way to make money bringing classics to the masses. It has been going strong ever since, with different publishers buying the rights to the series over the years. Whether or not one accepts the concept of a “cannon,” the Everyman’s titles are a good indicator of what mainstream scholars and writers think are important books, fiction and nonfiction.

Whenever I seen an Everyman’s that is new to me, I check it out. They are consistently worth the effort. I may not like the book, but I’ve never read anything weak under title. The streak remains, too, with a volume of four works by Irene Nemirovksy. Nemirovksy was a Ukrainian Jew who moved to France at a young age, became a very successful writer, and was unable to escape the Nazis. She died of typhus at Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. The four-work set does not include her writing about life under occupation in World War II, known as the Suite Francaise. Instead, included are David Golder, her first successful novel, The Ball and Snow in Autumn, two short stories, and The Courilof Affair, a political novel. It is a powerful collection.

Nemirovsky’s writing is interesting, reminiscent of Russian literature and also French social commentary. She drives plot quickly, is comfortable examining character’s interior dialogues, and eschews sentimentality and happy endings. She is realistic in the sense that once a piece starts moving, she follows the idea and events through to their end. It’s accessible literature and hard, too. Nemirovsky wrestles with difficult ideas. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand her success. She most definitely wrote literature worthy of serious consideration. She belongs in the Everyman’s series. Nemirovsky’s talent and work also highlight the tragedy of her death.

David Potash

Pat Barker is a Genius

No ifs, ands or buts about it – Pat Barker is one of the best novelists around. A bit more than a decade ago I read her Regeneration trilogy, three novels taking place in World War I. It was gripping, amazing, and memorable. They gave me goosebumps. The books were well-read, well-reviewed, and received multiple awards. The last novel in the three, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.

I don’t really know why, but I went for years without reading anything else by her. Barker kept writing, gathering up awards and putting out novels. When I came across a recent review praising yet another novel by her, I decided that it was high time to reacquaint myself with Barker. After a few more reads, my estimation of her has increased.

Barker wrote Double Vision in 2003. It’s a tightly written and yet wandering story with a hole at its middle: a character who was killed in the Middle East. His grieving wife and friend reconnect. No gimmicks in the plot. Instead, events unwind methodically as characters work to make sense of loss, life and meaning. There’s crime, passion, and a gothic feel to it – but without undue ornamentation.

In 2015 she published Noonday, the third novel in a trilogy that also stands on its own. It’s very good – no surprises there – and it deals in a very mature way with trauma, memory, and how people navigate through “history.” Again, at the center of the novel are few well developed characters who interact with each other, trying to figure out relationships, commitment and and meaning. Set during the WWII Blitz, violence defines the environment.

Both novels are sure of themselves and where they are going. Reading them provoked me into thinking through why Barker is so good, why her writing is so powerful. One answer rests on her intelligence. Her observations, her plotting, her language – it’s impossible to read Barker and not be aware that someone incredibly smart and talented has put it together. Even with her relatively straightforward language, I am aware of great wisdom, coupled with curiosity, moving the story along.

Barker shuns the unnecessary . Sentences and paragraphs, ideas and story, are clear and unencumbered. Her words are precise. She does not dumb things down, either, when parsing. It was good to reach for a dictionary when I came across “lordotic.” It’s the curve above your butt and in the paragraph, it fit perfectly.

Themes in Barker’s books are often unsettling. She writes about violence, trauma, and how people manage through it. She is generous with her characters while unsparing in her insights. I feel as though I have learned when I read her – though I never get the sense that she is didactic. There is little frivolity in her novels.

Bottom line – Barker’s writing is mature. It is literature, not fiction, from a grown up for grown ups. And when I’m ready for that, and not distraction, it makes for a very welcome read.

Thank you, Pat Barker, and please keep the prose coming.

David Potash

A New Familiar Story

The hardships of the immigrant experience to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The isolation of life in the upper midwest. The lure, threat and promise of the big city. Patriarchy, misogyny, violence. Bigotry in World War I. Second and third generation immigrants families. These are recognizeable themes in American literature.

Familiar themes, though, do not have to limit a novel’s scope or imagination.

Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland is about the disappearance of two daughters from the German family homestead in rural Iowa in the early part of the twentieth century. Hoover tells the story in five chapters, each from a character’s perspective. She plays with time, with narrative veracity, and with the plot. It unfolds in bits and pieces. Hoover, though, is not interested in writing a thriller or mystery. Tension is used in service of broader themes, particularly those of interpersonal connection and agency. The prose is marked by an austere clarity – even when the picture is foggy and described by an unreliable narrator.bottomland

Bottomland is a thoughtful and well-written novel. It is also surprisingly relevant to contemporary life. Pick your immigrant group, imagination the perspective of one with little agency in a world with few or no guarantees, add a bit of cross-cultural tension – and it all rings as familiar. Hoover has crafted a clever and thoughtful book.

I wonder if novelists will be looking at Somalian immigrants in Minnesota or Syrian immigrants in Michigan twenty years hence. If they do – and do it well as Bottomland – I will read and learn.

David Potash