COLUMN: War Literature

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Can a literary recounting of war stop the wholesale murder?

By Karin Schimke

War, for anyone who hasn’t been in it I would argue, is an idea so foreign as to belong to the realm of fantasy.

Its lived travesties, its dust and blood, the way it distorts and flattens places and people and ideas of goodness and desires for hope – these are unimaginable to me, no matter how much creative thinking I bring to it.

Also the larger phenomenon of war as an aspect of human life, the fact of it, the inevitability of it, is too strange to contemplate on a philosophical level. War is so remote, its realities so outlandish, that I have never been able to muster an active interest in its meta-workings nor the ability to imagine myself in its microscopic horrors.

Consequently, I’ve never sought out war literature, though I haven’t actively avoided it either. And yet all that I can begin to know about it has come to me by way of literature.

The non-combatant’s inability to imagine war is taken on directly by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. This was my first taste of war literature – or the first one I can remember – and along with Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Ian McEwan’s Atonement one the most vivid encounters I have had with the devastating wars of twentieth century Europe.

Wilfred tells the reader that if he or she could, in dreams, pace behind a wagon into which he and his fellows had to fling a man dying in a gas attack, they would not “with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory” tell “the old lie” that it is sweet and good to die for your country.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year, I attended a reading by John Maytham of literature from World War I called Dulce Et Decorum Est after the famous poem. The script was seamlessly put together by poet Finuala Dowling and Maytham’s emphatic and humane voice was transporting. Tears washed down my face and a furtive glance around me showed that I was not alone – men and women all around me had wet faces.

“War, what is it good for?” are the lyrics of an anti-war song made famous by Edwin Starr. Nothing, nothing, nothing that I can see from my experience-impoverished perspective. But it does produce memorable literature.

I’ve been thinking about it this week as I picked up a book and found myself engrossed in the writing by page two. It’s called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Power, who served in the Iraq war. His lyrical rendition of combat is deeply engrossing and provides a perspective on war that no media – even television – can match.

His work reminded me of Brian Turner, also a veteran of the Iraqi war, who wrote a book called Here, Bullet, as least as powerful as Wilfred Owen’s work, but more modern. Turner and Power have the same ability to convey to the reader the jumpy reality of expecting to feel a bullet rip your flesh apart at any moment, as well as the stupefying effect of escaping combat unharmed, with its attendant feelings of survivor guilt and years of post-traumatic stress.

Other war literature that has rocked the world (but sadly, without ending war) include Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks, For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and the outstanding works of Pat Barker.

I count myself lucky not to have the experience that makes war imaginable. I count myself lucky to live in a world in which abomination can be rendered worthwhile on at least one level. I continue to hope that literary recounting of a repugnant aspect of life on earth will continue to spread loathing for wholesale murder.

It might be the only antidote we have to man’s insatiable appetite for armed conflict.

  •  This column first in the Cape Times in October 2014.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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