Monday, July 11, 2011

In the Time of the Breaking of Nations

Somehow we at Chez Buce have stumbled onto a distinctive literary genre--war books of a sort, but more particularly, books about people caught up in the mad schemes of others.   It's a grim business but it can be grimly satisfying.

I suppose the most all-round engaging of the current crop is Yasushi Inoue's Tun-Huang, lately republished by NYRB.  Nominally it is not a war book at all: it's a fictional account of the burial of a trove of Buddhist manuscripts in the Mogao Caves in what is now Western China.  Nominally not, but the whole point of the story is that we are in the contested no-man's land on China's northwest frontier, as one polity passes away while another takes it place.  Crisply and directly told, plausible as the story of a man living his life in the buffeting of forces that should have nothing to do with him.

Tun Huang is a curious pendant to  Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's classic account of his military (if you can call it that) service in the Spanish Civil War.  Once again, it is a meditation on the slippage between the conflict on the ground (in the mountains of Aragon) and the larger--and here, much more sinister--political forces that shape and surround it.  For a 21st Century reader, perhaps the most important takeaway is how innocent we (still) were about the insidious role of the Comintern in corrupting native radicalism.

They Burn The Thistles by Yashar Kemal, may seem hardly to belong on this list at all.  Strictly speaking, it is not a war novel in any sense.  But there is a resonance insofar as Kemal gives an account of poor peasants victimized by landlords whose greed they can barely comprehend.

Perhaps the grimmest of the grim (in the current lot) is Gert Ledig's The Stalin Front--an attempt to give an account of what it was really (I mean really)  like on the Hitler-Stalin frontier during World War II.  So far as I can tell, the book has always enjoyed a certain esteem, but not much popularity.  Not hard to see why:   Ledig's war is human misery without a trace of romance in it.

All of which makes William Faulkner's The Unvanquished look positively cheery by comparison.   This is not first-tier Faulkner, at least in the English-teacher sense.  It's just a rattling good story of resilience and cunning and if it is a bit too close to nostalgia for the good ol' cause, why then you need a break once in a while.

I just remembered another that surely belongs on the list: Jean-Paul Sartre's story of the old shepherd in the south of France who gets caught up in the preparations for World War II without fully grasping what "France" might be. Part of the trilogy Les chemins de la liberté, though I cannot pin down exactly which part.

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