Thursday, January 27, 2011

Human stories told for nothing: The utter waste of war. (Books - A Long Long Way - Barry)

I had only ever heard of Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, which I assumed (wrongly) to be some sort of commercialized quasi religious tripe, given the American cover which had a picture of an angel, and the fact that everyone was reading it. It put me right off. So last week, when my research advisor (an Irishman) put of copy of Barry's A Long Long Way into my hands, calling it one of his favorite books, I was forced to acquire an informed opinion of Sebastian Barry. That, and I was able to find out what my advisor liked in a book. That long preamble out of the way, I have to say that A Long Long Way was passionately written and devastating in its depiction of the human waste of war, in this case World War I.

It concerns Willie Dunne, a 5' 6" volunteer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Irish participation in World War I aggravated an already fractious climate in the fight for home rule in Ireland, which came to a head in the Easter Rebellion in 1916. The rebellion led to a growth in popularity of the Irish republican movement. When the German front began to collapse, the British seriously needed soldiers and were forced to enact home rule. Willie Dunne was among the many Irish soldiers fighting a war on two fronts, one against the Germans, the other an internal battle among allegiances toward family and country. A Long Long Way is Willie's story.
He was a little baby and would be always a little boy. He was like the thin upper arm of a beggar with a few meagre bones shot through him, provisional and bare.
Barry has a poet's gift for grouping everyday words into elegiac sequences. He makes no bones about the fact that this is going to be a story of heartbreak.
And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish - and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Burkha, Cossack, and all the rest - their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers' milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death's amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.
Human stories told for nothing. Words to choke a reader with sadness, and bitter words coming from a writer.

I found this cataclysmic story utterly enveloping. I could read it and be involved anywhere, on a crowded bus or in the quiet of my home. Barry has a sure hand in painting landscapes:
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. The war was like a huge dream at the edge of this waking landscape, something far off and near that might ruin the lives of children and old alike, catastrophe to turn a soul to dry dust.
...and he people's them with incisive sentences:
He was mopping at his eyes with his sleeve like a bad actor. His big, doughy face was melting and as red as a red arse.
Usually I can't stand battle scenes. Whether in history or fiction, I find them impossible to envision, possibly because I can't see any people in them and find it impossible to see in my mind's eye the abstraction of a battalion. Not so with Barry's. His battle scenes, though virile and violent, are also populated. He is observant of the people in them:
The guns went on wailing and caterwauling. There were ferocious blows and bangs and thumps. The sergeant-major, for reasons of his own, was whistling 'The Minstrel Boy' now low under his breath, which was a curious fact, since he never whistled. Willie could see in his mind's eye the gunners work their guns, the way they were so used to it, and knew all the movements, like in a Saturday dance. Like they were waltzing or something with those metal guns.
And he writes damn good dialogue too. You can tell that Barry wrote for the theatre. It would be so easy to speak this lines:
'All the fucking lads up there. You should see the place. It's just a flat fucking few acres with little spots of white dust on it where the fucking houses were. And those devious Ulster lads from the 36th milling about and calling us wonderful fucking Paddies, that's what they said, and shaking our hands, And Australians and all kinds of mad bastards. And hundreds and hundreds of fucking Boche surrendering and shouting out that fucking Kamerad thing they do, and you couldn't blame them. What a fucking to-do. You wouldn't see it in Dublin on a Saturday night in the fucking summer, Willie. We're after winning this one. Isn't that a fucking how-are-you for the books?'
What Barry makes most plain in this beautiful book is the confusion and the utter waste of war, even in the case of a noble cause. It ruins the men (and now women) who fight it, the earth under them, the families they left behind. It ruins lives not even totally formed yet. One of its great tragedies, this book tells us, is that it ruins boys before they ever grow up enough to know their own minds.
Now the battalion in reserve was supposed to appear behind them in a bit and surge on wonderfully to Langemarck. Not a soul living seemed to be near them, nor a soul behind. All was a blank, black sheet of murderous nothing. It was daylight and the war had fogged the world.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

This book sounds devastating and I'm not sure I have the stomach to read it. The passage you excerpted on the mothers and the wasted mother's milk is heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and something I have thought to myself many, many times when contemplating the ravages and waste of war. How wonderfully strange when your most private thoughts suddenly leap out at you from a page...