Monday, September 12, 2005

Little Men in a Great War

"And in that bright October sun
I knew our childhood days were done
I watched my friends go off to war
What do they keep on fighting for?"

- Leningrad, Billy Joel.

I woke up this morning with this long-forgotten song of my childhood ringing inside my head. I think its only fair to blame it on two haunting reviews of Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way that I read yesternight before I went off to sleep.

"A Long Long Way is the story of how the spirit can walk through the shadow of the valley of death and still emerge uncorrupted on the other side", says Falstaff in his review. As of now, its his favorite to win the Booker.

And following is Susmit's review of the same book.

"It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go,
It's a long way to Tipperary,
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye Piccadilly! Farewell Leicester Square!
It's a long, long way to Tipperary,
But my heart's right there"

-- Popular First World War song

Just this last month, one woman in Texas jolted this nation's consciousness with some simple questions. What noble purpose did her son die for? What is the meaning of the sacrifice of so many young people? It is an old question, perhaps of every war, and Sebastian Barry raises it again, poignantly, in "A Long Long Way".

It is 1914, when the generation later to be called the Lost Generation is coming of age. One of those millions is Willie Dunne, son of a policeman in Dublin. His is an idyllic existence, even if he will never grow to the regulation height to be a policeman like his father. He squabbles with his three sisters, and tries to escape often enough to meet his sweetheart. The swirling political climate of Dublin is none of his concern.

Soon enough, the Great War strikes. Irish Home Rule, which of course would inspire revolutionaries far away in India, is promised, and Ireland agrees to fight. Caught up in the fervor, like millions of "Russian, French, Serbian, English, Scottish, Welsh, Zulu, Gurkhas, Cossacks, Australians, and all the rest", Willie joins up too. His father may finally look on his small son with pride.

The novel then documents Willie's passage from adolescence to adulthood in the brutal environs of war. He will be gassed, again and again. He will spend a night with a prostitute. He will have his best friend die in his arms. He will watch his beloved captains die. He will walk on corpses. He will personally bayonet many, many Germans. He will spend weeks in trenches, staring at an uneasy countryside, and then watch thousands die to take a few yards of land. War is dreary, and horrific, and numbing, reminiscent of Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.

Barry is unsparing in his depiction of this horror. He still manages to poetically depict the essential innocence of those who fight this brutal war, from privates like Willie and his mates, to the drill sergeant who insists on the exercises in the rule book when he knows they are no good, "like an agnostic priest".

By any definition, these boys are heroes, and Barry does not hesitate to pull at the heartstrings. But who will recognise their heroism? Back on leave, Willie will be spat on by kids. "Go back home, Tommy soldier!" Public opinion is definitely turning against England. Willie must come to his own understanding, having unknowingly been part of the troops that beat back the Easter Rising. He and his mates will question whether they are fighting for "Crown, King and Country", and whether those are the same things, even if the mate dying next to them is from London.

On the other side, the English generals are very definitely suspicious of the Irish troops' loyalties. They are reviled as mutineers and runaways, regardless of the tens of thousands of Irish lives lost. Ultimately, the Irish boys are neither here nor there, fitting in nowhere but in the trenches, with each other.

"A Long Long Way" is a simple story, with no surprising twists and turns. It says nothing breathtakingly new when it rages against the mindlessness of young people dying for no purpose. It is even conscious it is saying nothing new, but perhaps its point cannot be repeated often enough. It is written beautifully, and is a strong contender for the Booker. Not having read any other book on the list, I cannot compare it to the others.

Perhaps I can do no worse than leave you with my favorite passages, since Barry's strength seems to be in his often poetic writing style.

"The storm rattled the last leaves out of the regal oaks in the old pleasure gardens behind the hospital, and it drove the wet harvest along the gutters and into the gapin drains and down into the unknown avenues of the great sewers. The blood of births was sluiced down there too, and all the many liquids of humanity, but the salt sea at Ringsend took everything equally."

"'What did the Irish ever do?' Willie laughed. 'Lost a lot of lads at Mons, that's what. And Ypres, and the Marne. Loads and loads of young lads. That's what we Irish did, lately.'"

"Ave Maria, gratia plenis, full of grace, and many of the men caught that it was just the Hail Mary all dressed over in another lingo, the prayer of their childhoods and their country, the prayer of their inmost minds, that could not be sundered, that could not be violated, that could not be rendered meaningless even by slaughter, the core inviolable, the flame unquenchable."

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