A literary surprise

Recently, my wife Barbara—for whom I procure books—and I have found ourselves immersed in a spate of novels about the First or Second World War. We didn’t deliberately seek out “books on a theme,” just good literary novels. Some authors whose names come to mind are Jodi Picoult, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson, Anthony Doerr and Jacqueline Winspeare.

Barbara was born in 1947, two years after Hiroshima, and I a year later. Our fathers were both in the U.S. Armed Forces, hers in the Marines, mine in the Army. Her dad saw action in the Pacific. Mine didn’t, but he volunteered for the invasion of Japan, in which it’s estimated a million Americans would have died. The atom bombs, of course, made that invasion unnecessary.

The Second World War has been spoken of by sages as the darkest moment in all human history. A friend of mine recently suggested that in 1,000 years, it may be looked upon as an epic, mythic struggle between Dark and Light, much as the Battle of Kurukshetra—the occasion for Krishna’s discoursing the Bhagavad Gita— is.

And yet, the America we grew up in was in flight from the very memory of those horrific times. We developed the consumer culture of the 1950s, the “refuge” of the suburbs, and TV sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best, easy-to-look-at mirrors of our society. John Wayne and others did Second World War flicks, mostly action stuff.  A few, such as From Here to Eternity, had more substance.

No one in particular can be seen as the perpetrator of this mass reaction, unless it was the companies and advertisers who benefited financially. As children, we were certainly not the architects of the emotional environment in which we grew up. The slate of history had simply been washed clean for us, as it is in some sense for each new generation. Today, for example, we hear about young people who don’t know who the Beatles were. The legacy one generation leaves to the next is a complicated, fascinating sociological phenomenon.

I was busy as a child watching cowboy shows on TV and playing baseball. I read Batman and Superman and Archie comics, and when I dared, one called Forbidden Worlds; and oh, yes, I read dozens of “orange biographies,” such as Luther Burbank, Boy Naturalist and Jim Bridger, Boy Trapper, about famous people when they were young.

The Korean War was going on in the early 1950’s, and I remember telling Dad on a walk one Sunday on the grounds of the St. Louis Zoo, as we passed an area of frozen mud where they’d been laying new pipes, “I think this looks like Korea.” So I did have some awareness of that conflict, or at least of its infamous cold winters. We were required to pass tests on the world wars in school; and yet, decades later, we still asked: “Why did Archduke Ferdinand get assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914?”

Vicarious squirming

Fast forward to the year 2015, when it almost seems that by design, many of our best novelists are tackling the emotional, as well as the historical content of the wars and the Holocaust. In-depth cultural education may take that long. At any rate, Barbara and I feel it’s serendipitous that we now have this opportunityto fill in some of the gaps in our sense of what the world was like just prior to our births.

In one of the finest novels, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (which won a Pulitzer Prize), there’s a telling scene that takes place on the grounds of an exclusive school for German teenagers who are being prepared for lives as officers, scientists and administrators of the Reich. The scene bespeaks the enrichment I feel I’m receiving from this genre of historical literary novels.

All The Light We Cannot See cover - History with a heart

The third Reich is depicted in all its features—not just in this book, but wherever it’s characterized—as essentially an organized system of bullying. Everywhere, and in numerous large and “small” ways, the strong are taught, admonished, and finally, forced to prey on the weak! The weak, by virtue of racial “impurity” or physical or mental disability, are regarded as subhuman.

In the scene I’m thinking of, the Commandant calls the boys out one night from the large castle-like building that serves as their school and dorm. A bonfire is burning on the lawn, and a very dishevelled man is being held there, tied to a post. The Commandant says this man was discovered on school grounds, trying to steal food. (Later, it’s learned that such a “hobo” is planted every year for an identical exercise.) It’s winter and the night is freezing. The Commandant gives a speech about how this “undesirable” is like a vermin, and how he’s weak and the Reich does not tolerate weakness! After working the boys up to a feverish pitch, he lifts a bucket full of cold water and orders each boy to pass in front of the man and throw a bucketful, refilled each time from a vat, on him.

Obviously, the man, wearing only a thin layer of clothing, will either freeze to death or develop pneumonia and die of that. But the boys, who are now conditioned to see him as filth, fervently oblige and gleefully splash him, feeling they have served their Fuhrer.

One boy, a kind of dreamer who is the friend and bunkmate of the point-of-view character (of whom Doerr has two, the other being a blind French girl) refuses point-blank to follow the order. He says bluntly, “Herr Commandant, I refuse to take part in this.”

For such an action, he’s branded by the Commandant, in yet another speech to the boys, as weak—as similar to the transient—as undesirable. And, without giving any more of the plot away, it’s clear that the aroused students will “take care of him” one way or another. The crowd itself becomes the club wielded by the bully.

Werner, the point of view character, observes his friend’s courage and recognizes it as such, even though he is not brave enough to follow suit. He throws his bucket with what he knows are lame rationalizations such as, “He’s going to die, whatever I do.” What he witnesses, however, haunts him for the rest of his life. Unlike many of the German characters in the novel, he has sufficient conscience that no propaganda speech can put to sleep.

Deepened awareness

All the Light We Cannot See and the other novels that we’ve been reading parade before us the very best and the very worst that we human beings are capable of. The reader, who is likely to fall somewhere in the middle between the two moral extremes, like Werner, witnesses the sober drama of historically accurate events with awe—in fact, with the blend of “terror and pity” that Aristotle, in his famous Poetics, describes as the tragic emotion.

Essentially, of course, we imaginatively put ourselves into all the situations we encounter in good fiction. Everything we read about “happens to us” vicariously. We tremble that anyone, ever, had to endure the dehumanization, accompanied by the denial of basic human necessities, described in the account of being a Holocaust victim in Picoult’s The Storyteller. “There but for the grace of God” becomes a byword. Why were we spared? We don’t know. Maybe we did endure such things in past lives, and have been mercifully veiled from remembering.

Reading such novels, we learn that war is not just about troop movements and campaign planning. I have a friend who has studied the world wars throughout his adult life, but reads no fiction about them, only history books. History books, in my own opinion, are necessary, and some of them are invaluable. My wife, for example, was recently driven to Barbara Tuchman’s authoritative The Guns of August, about the complex events surrounding the outbreak of the First World War. It finally gave her an in-depth answer to the question, “Why was Archduke Ferdinand assassinated?”

For me, however, novels—not just any novel, but novels of the quality of the ones I’ve mentioned here—or meticulously accurate films, dramas, or TV series’ such as Foyle’s War (about England during the Second World War years) put people, often ordinary people, at the centre of these great dramas. Events of such a scale affect everyone across the board, be they presidents, kings, military officers or soldiers, farmers, shopkeepers or children. It’s rewarding to see, close-up, the repercussions of the mighty historical tides in the lives of individuals.

As Frodo and his friends come to life for the reader and thus bring the whole world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy alive, one or several faithfully-depicted characters we care about at the centre of a historical epic give it a face, a heart. This enables people like Barbara and me to feel the human predicament more deeply and have a better sense of where we come from, and therefore of where and who we are, at the moment.

Countless times, we’ve heard how those who are not aware of history are doomed to repeat it. Such awareness is kindled most poignantly in these novels, where the forces that shape history are shown acting upon and being acted upon by people like us. Such books are certainly a “medicine” that helps us awaken and stop repeating. Time will tell whether the accretion of this medicine will finally cure the disease.

image 1: Poppy via Shutterstock