Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Does War Result in Such Great Literature?

It's a tragic commentary but oh, so true. There has been some outstanding literature born of war, particularly now that the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are winding down. Must reads are The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by National Book Critics Circle winner Ben Fountain. Yesterday, here at the library, I led a heartfelt discussion of another novel about Afghanistan, The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.

What's unique about this novel is that the author, unlike Powers and Fountain, is not and never was a soldier. And yet, each character's voice is so authentic, so right on, that one of the members of our group asked if he had been embedded with a squadron. He had not. Bhattacharya is a philosopher. How perfect is that?

As I prepped for the discussion I listened to a lengthy interview with the author and took notes. I also read the book twice, once for the initial impression and again for note taking and comprehension, where I invariably discover how much I missed the first time!

As befitting a philosopher, The Watch was written as a Greek tragedy, specifically, Antigone. After a prolonged firefight with casualties on both sides, a young woman waving a white flag, appears out of the mountainous terrain pushing herself on a homemade cart. The soldiers in the redoubt, kids really, aged 18 to 19, are initially terrified, suspecting a suicide bomber, then appalled, and finally somewhat empathetic to Nazim's request for her dead brother's body which she wants to bury according to her Pashtun custom.

But her brother's body is being held as a political tool by those in command, to be sent back to Kabul, to be photographed and displayed as evidence that the war is working, that the Taliban is falling to the might of the Americans and Nazim's continued presence in the killing fields becomes an uncomfortable reality to the Captain in charge.

Bhattacharya beautifully captures the palpable fear and boredom of the troops as they wait for a decision to be made about the young woman before another Taliban attack. Their youth, naivete, and false bravado jump off the pages as each soldier relates his perspective of the forty-eight hour period after Nazim's arrival. They speak of honor, the soldier's code, the chain of command, even as their hearts tell them they are on a fool's errand.

This novel is another remarkable addition to the growing body of work, poignant, angry, resigned, and sarcastic, that is coming from a new generation of writers using our country's endless wars to produce great literature. I'll leave it to you to decide if the end justifies the means.

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