Saturday, February 22, 2014

What I've Learned about Sex from Ian Buruma

It's probably nothing to be proud of, but I confess to a certain fascination with "defeat" literature--stories about wreckage and recovery in the aftermath of war.  I remain in debt to my late friend Ignoto for alerting me to Naples '44, Norman Lewis' darkly hilarious account of his service in the British cleanup crew at the end of World War II.  I've met the challenge of Primo Levi's spare-but-elegant Italian, not only in his account of his concentration camp experience, but also in his two accounts (one admittedly fictionalized) of the disintegration of the Nazi death camps, and the reconstruction of lives in the aftermath (link, link).  Now I'm onto Ian Buruma's   Year Zero: A History of 1945, with the same level of satisfaction.

Lewis and Levi lived through the horrors they describe.  Buruma,  generation younger, has a different task: he is trying to acquaint himself with what his forebears, particularly his father, went through.  The distance means that his account lacks some of the particularity of the other two (although Buruma, like the others, does have his share of hair-raising yarns).  But the detachment allows him to develop some independent critical judgments.  For example, about sex.

Grant that we've had no shortage of sex-in-the-wreckage accounts, prurient or horrific--particularly, I suppose, about systematic vengeance rape among Russian invaders in Germany, or about any girl (or boy) who might have to market what s/he had just to fend off starvation.   Buruma's account fits the general framework. What perhaps he adds is the suggestion of just various the sexual pallet was in those days: how many did how much for how many different motives.

Set aside outright rape (with the concession that yes, western soldiers raped too, but not as a matter of government policy).  Acknowledge sex out of desperation--to fend off starvation, or to ally one's self with a protector.  Buruma's point is that there was  lot more:  in particular, we are dealing here not just with desperation and hardship but also with the new birth of optimism: after four or more years of war, we observe an explosion of what we can only call erotic energy.  Aside from the girls trying to feed themselves, we have those who were just happy for the chocolate and the nylons.  We have some who formed loving, even lasting, relationships. And we have a whole lot of people who were just primed for a good time.  Side note: introducing a nice irony, Buruma remarks on how the Japanese were terrified that  the invading Westerners would treat Japanese women the same way the Japanese invading forces had treated subject peoples in East Asia--but it didn't happen. Not at all incidentally, we can observe  sudden, sharp spike in the birth rate, and the other thing that the chaplains warned of: venereal disease.

In this realm, the Western soldiers--not just US GIs, but also Canadians and Brits--were the fortunate beneficiaries.  It wasn't precisely their niceness that carried the day: rather more the exhaustion, emaciation and general air of defeat that hung like a cloud that hung over the  Germans and their collaborators.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Buruma remarks on how the Japanese were terrified that the invading Westerners would treat Japanese women the same way the Japanese invading forces had treated subject peoples in East Asia--but it didn't happen."
In the mid 50's in my summer break work I met WW2 and Korean War vets. One guy was a member of the first group of soldiers occupying Japan. There were no facilities to house these guys. Well one smart guy figured out that it was cheap to just hire an entire Japanese whore house. The WW2 guys were in Germany and all came home with German wives. They were just a bunch of horny kids who had a great time post war.