Wednesday 12 September 2012

A Long Long Way

'A Long Long Way' by Sebastian Barry
I listened to Secret Scripture about 18 months ago and really loved it and decided to read something else by Sebastian Barry. I have not read many war novels, and none that I can think of about the First World War. It is a sad book not just because of the catalogue of human loss but because of the apparent disregard with which those humans were lost.

Our hero is Willie Dunne. But he is not really a hero nor is he presented as one; he does nothing to make himself stand out, makes no sacrifices for his comrades, he is cannon fodder who pisses himself with terror every time they are obliged to engage the enemy. I kind of liked that about him, he did not become acclimatised to the inhumanity of the situation he found himself in, he did not get used to it and accept it, his psyche and his body rejected it as an aberration right up to the end. He spends long years fighting in the trenches in Belgium, the horror of their situation being highlighted by the comradeship he find amongst the men he fights alongside and the bonds of friendship that are created there. The book is unstinting in it's description of the conditions but also presents the men as really believing that the war they are waging is a just one and that they are fighting for their country and their freedom. It's not that they are naive but that patriotism is a worthy cause and they accepted the social order that dictated that their role in the situation was to offer up their lives. In the background is the story of Ireland and the republican uprising in 1916 which articulated the demands for Home Rule, and the conflicts that then existed within the army in their attitudes towards the irish soldiers. 

I think Willie becomes a hero because he maintains his humanity in the face of the war. This quote is after Captain Pasley is killed by the first gas attack:

"They stood there two feet apart in all that vale of tears, one man asking another how he was, the other asking how the other was, the one not knowing truly what the world was, the other not knowing either. One nodded now to the other in an expression of understanding without understanding, of saying without breathing a word. And the other nodded back to the other, knowing nothing. Not this new world of terminality and astonishing dismay, of extremity of ruin and exaggeration of misery. And Father Buckley did not know anything but grief, and Willie Dunne on that black day likewise.
Five hundred men and more of Willie's regiment dead.
As they stood there a strange teem of rain fell down from the heavens. It rattled, veritably rattled on their human shoulders." (p. 52-3)

It is as if the war is another world all to itself and the real world struggles to go on regardless:

"The field flowers were just appearing; light rains washed and washed again the pleasing fields. In those parts the farmers seemed to have decided that they might prepare to sow a harvest. The little villages seemed queerly optimistic; perhaps the human hearts were infected with whatever infects the very birds of Belgium. The sun lay along objects with indifferent and democratic grace, gun-barrel or ploughshare." (p.101)

After a battle:

"There were no white picket fences, headstones, or the like. Just row after row of irregular beds, like a poor man's vegetable plot, and into these loamy beds were lain the vanished soldiers. If they were stiff, the living men broke a limb here and a limb there, with muttered apologies to the slain. They were clothed in dark army sacks, all stray things, wallets, pictures, letters carefully extracted from dusty pockets and bloodied places, and the commanding officers of all the units kept these scraps and flotsams with identifying discs and soldier's small-books and the like, eventually to be sent back to the mourning mothers and fathers in their countries." (p.122)

During the advance:

"But to get across the the first line of trenches they had to cross a field of some twenty acres. This looked to Willie like it had been the very heart of the battle, either this battle or some other battle. The warriors were still there, all killed, every one. It was like a giant quilt of grey and khaki, like the acres had been ploughed vigorously but then sown with the giant seeds of corpses. There was a legion of british soldiers there, mingled astonishingly with the Boche. Grey jacket and khaki jacket, a thousand helmets scattered like mushrooms, a thousand packs mostly still attached to backs like horrible humps, and wounds, and wounds ..." (p.177-8)

The sense of the pointlessness of everything they are doing:

"The war would never be over. He had come out for poor Belgium and to protect his sisters. He would always be there. The tally-sticks of death would be cut from the saplings for ever more. The generals would count the dead men and mark their victories and defeats and send out more men, more men. For ever more.
The hedgehogs were hidden in the leaves of the woods. The owls were in the sycamores and the ash-trees. And one more altered soul inside the winter of Flanders." (p.203)

Willie goes to visit Captain Pasley's parents:

" 'You missed him when he was killed.'
Willie Dunne said nothing then; why would he need to? He missed him when he was killed. He missed them all. He missed them when they were killed. He sorrowed to see them killed, he sorrowed to go on without them, he sorrowed to see the new men coming in, and to be killed themselves, and himself going on, and not a mark on him, and Christy Moran, not a mark, and all their friends and mates removed. Some still stuck in the muck, or in ruined yards, or blowing in the blessed air of Belgium in blasted smithereens.
He had come, he had thought, to comfort the captain's parents. How could there be comfort in a fool sitting in the kitchen with his tongue tied and his heart scalded.
'Do you know,' said Mrs Pasley, 'it means the earth to me to see what he meant to you. It does.' " (p.259)

And again, in fact it seems the message of the story, the interminable war; it is unreal, and removed from real life, but it becomes the only life they will ever have:

"Perhaps they would all dig in again, and be at this for another thousand years. This would be their country forever more, these hills, this bridge, these autumn-tormented trees. He would ever look out on here from a neat trench that he would make with his entrenching tool, and they would fashion, him and Christy Moran and the other lads, some nice revetments from the hazels in the wood, and keep everything as trim as they could, and pray for good weather. And those Germans in the distance would become a rumour, the ghosts of a rumour, another world but a close world, the dark moon to their bright sun. And so it would be for ever and ever more." (p. 288)

It is a truly wonderful book, if a book about war can be. It is beautifully written. It is poignant and poetic, but never romanticises their experiences. It makes you wonder how after this war men were ever persuaded to fight again. How can such a lesson be so apparently forgotten. It did touch on the irony of the gulf between the orders coming from the generals and the reality in the trenches, 'advance! advance!' into the sea of mud that turned the men into sitting ducks for the german machine gunners, and to that extent it has an element of polemic, but it is as much about how humanity is sustained in the face of war as it is destroyed. It is about a young man struggling to be what is expected of him, to forge an understanding of the world when the world he finds is itself meaningless. A young man who only wants to build things but is forced to partake in wanton destruction. I liked him and I admired him and I was left mourning everything he lost. 

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