by Prashant Keshavmurthy
If there is a literary history of the modern warrior then Matthew Murphy's A Beckoning War should be its latest chapter and, surely, its finest. Told in the third-person, the novel narrates “the Allied advance through the Gothic Line in Northern Italy in September 1944” almost wholly through the perspective of Captain Jim McFarlane of the Canadian Fifth Armored Division.
In the face of his wife Marianne's objections – they have been married less than a year – Jim volunteers to go to war out of a citizenly sense of duty to the Allied cause. The voluntary character of this decision places the novel in a modern tradition of war novels all of whose protagonists enter the fray out of a sense of righteous duty. Among these is Paul Bäumer of Eric Maria Remarque's 1929 All Quiet on the Western Front and Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Ernest Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Hemmingway's famously bleak recreations of machinegun slaughter are the ancestors of Murphy's dense descriptions of war machines and wounding.
As both these canonical examples attest, the modern war novel has been an anti-war novel. I prefer to identify Jim McFarlane, not as a soldier, but – despite the archaism of the term – as a warrior. Doing so places Jim in an older lineage of epic heroes (Beowulf, Tristan and Faraydun and Rustam come to mind) each of whom chooses to go to war with an enemy of his people. In so doing, he battles monsters (Beowulf with Grendel; Tristan with Morold; Faraydun and Rustam with a variety of demons) by destroying whose gigantic bodies he defines himself as his people's ideal and marks out a land as his people's homeland. This, at any rate, is the epic norm.
But Jim's story invokes and departs from this norm at once. It invokes it by the voluntary and public nature of Jim's decision, a decision that – like Odysseus's parting with Penelope – casts his personal life into crisis. Jim must go to war for his country even if his being away threatens his young marriage. When Jim receives a letter in which Marianne lets him know of her decision to end their marriage because she finds the stress of his situation “too much to bear” he drinks to ease his grief. His inebriation sways his attention to his duties as a captain, this professional lapse earning him a scolding from a colonel who says: “What's private is private, and it has to remain thus. You are commissioned to be an officer, and as such, your job is to follow orders given to you by your superiors, and to give orders to those under you, so that together we can win this war. This means that you must never disregard or disobey any order. Your private life cannot get in the way of your commission, do you hear me?” (188). But it is just such mechanical moral reasoning that the best literature of war – including the pre-novelistic epic tradition – has always put into question, muddying the moral clarity of patriotism. Occurring roughly at the mid-point of the novel, his wife's decision – as morally deliberate and difficult as his own – cleaves his wartime career in half, making his every subsequent military experience so much lonelier.
Also invoking the epic monster through whom the hero becomes a hero is the gigantism of the military theaters Jim finds himself in. He must cast himself at such giant violence for the honor that binds him to the men of his Division and to his country's cause. But here the resemblances with the epic warrior end. For the battering Jim's body takes at war does not lead it to grow to match the monsters that assault it. Nor is the enemy itself monstrous but the diffused violence that punishes everyone equally. It isn't clear at the end of the novel that anyone has won the war. That the Allies are known to have won it is a textbook fact unmentioned in the novel and irrelevant to the greater reality of Jim's dissolution.
The novel's opening passage – “Thump! A jolt, accompanied by a breeze, stirring delirium” – already captures the novel's most conspicuous and continuous feature: the prose of the psychophysical experience of war. The novel's most extended and poetically clotted passages aim to convey the physical battering, battle-hot group solidarity and social and sexual loneliness Jim experiences at war. Here is a passage:
“He absorbs the pounding pyrotechnic display about him. The sky is streaked in trajectories. The earth rumbles underfoot and the horizon flares with countless muzzle flashes that bruise the clouds in their flicker. An overbearing overture of power, the prelude to every major offensive in which he has taken part. There is a pounding in his ears, and he tears two pieces from a Kleenex tissue, wets them with his spit and plugs his ears to what little avail they can offer, the bombardment pounding at his eardrums like a battering ram at the gates of a beleaguered castle, rippling through his bones, shaking his teeth like chinaware, echoing through his head, the shrapnel of noise shearing and snapping the frail filaments bonding his thoughts, reducing the interior of his head to a crashing, jangling catastrophe of noise disrupting all possibility of coherent thought” (200).
The passage locates us in Jim's ambient space, letting us identify with his person as an Armageddon of noise invades it. His body is likened to a castle while the metaphor presents the clouds as sentient beings vulnerable to bruising. What is outside his body takes on meaning because of what goes on inside it and what passes from outside to inside of it. Murphy's pervasive use of alliteration (“pounding pyrotechnic”, “overbearing overture”, “bombardment”, “battering” and “beleaguered”, “shearing and snapping the frail filaments”) hooks us to the dense texture of his sentences, never letting the narration lapse into a merely plot-driven reading experience. Rather than a shot-from-the-gun plot, the story unfolds (in 35 chapters, each 4 to 10-pages long) as a sequence of Jim's states of being. This aspect is crucial to the ethical meaning of the novel.
The concrete experience of war exceeds anything thought can justify because it “disrupts all possibility of coherent thought”. The considerations of citizenly duty that impelled Jim to sign up as an officer come to ring hollow. Not because they are bad arguments but because they are arguments at all. Patriotism is no more than a kind of argument and so assumes a human person coherent to itself and capable of communicating something of this coherence to other humans. But what if patriotism demands that the human individual submit itself to experiences that destroy the moral center of such coherence? What if apparently just war erases the self that understood justice and acted on that understanding? This is the question at the heart of Murphy's novel.
The novel's answers must be inferred from its poetics. Central to this poetics is the afore-described feature of the narrative's intense and exclusive focalization of the action through Jim. A variety of subordinate features, all well known in the tradition of modern realist fiction and poetry, suggest that this focalization through Jim means that his experiences are his alone; that perspective is restrictive and relative rather than expansive and objective. During a lull at the Italian front, for example, Jim and his Division mate Cooley swim in the ocean:
“As he bobs in the waves, he contemplates wordlessly for a few moments the ephemeral nature of human movements – migrations and invasions mocked and mirrored above by the clouds that swirl, storm, crash and dissipate in a constant current and eddy and boil of vaporous thunder and rain” (157).
Here, the otherwise pervasive conceit by which the ambient world is an extension of Jim's body is inverted by irony. The sky and sea move to rhythms that bear only a “mocking” resemblance to human ones, trivializing them by their vast indifference. This is a familiar modern literary motif: Ted Hughes' best animal-themed poems create ecologies in which the human is no more than a undignified nuisance; Auden's “The Fall of Rome” imagines a modern city succumbing to crime and misrule while, “Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast”. It is just such an indifferent elsewhere that here envelops Jim as the ocean, buffeting him to rhythms indifferent to the ones ordering his life at war. Later in the novel, Jim's gaze drifts towards the geological features of the Northern Italian valley in which he and his men find themselves: “The air cools a little, just a little, as a cold front moves in and tangles with the warm, nature locked in its eternal struggle with no thought toward the man-made one that litters the ground below and poisons the air around and above. A casual breeze, a slight change in pressure, a twitch of planetary muscle more powerful than all of man's engines of war put together”. As he takes in the miniscule human movements in the valley below he imagines them to be “microbes on the skin of a great animal, living out their lives and purposes with little perception of the nature of their environment” (179).
However, such a Stoic miniaturization of human affairs does not lead to wisdom. It only offers temporary relief or estranges the world so it seems “a brief, imperfect, gnostic universe born of the happenstance of nervous unrest” (202). Wisdom, counter-intuitively, lies in the very solipsism of the narrative technique. Towards the end of the novel Jim, seriously wounded but rescued, drifts in a delirium. He floats into an identity with the familial past and last moments of the German soldier – who he imagines was called Helmut – he shot dead. The similarity between the rhetoric of Helmut's broken body, his mother's letter to him and Jim's own psychophysical dissolution and his correspondence with his mother arrives as a powerful modulation of the narrator's otherwise near continuous identification with Jim's consciousness. Coming as it does at the end of the novel, it suggests that it is his wartime suffering that lets him experience human personhood as a trans-human constant and that this, in turn, lets him identify with the German soldier. Following on this fevered drift into identification with his German enemy is Jim's identification with Marianne. We see her mourn her marriage by burning a box of Jim's letters to her, this act easing a burden on her and easing her decision to end her marriage. This decision, thus far only conveyed to us by her letter to Jim and so only from his grief-crazed perspective, now reappears from her own standpoint. Only, it isn't quite her standpoint alone but Jim's as he now effaces himself to imagine himself as her, as “I the pillar of the ego melts like a candle in the approaching of the light, and he is dissolving in the light enfolded in the night, understanding and expanding and truth at once unsequenced and ungrammared in the arrival of the light”.
Such a foregrounding of the somatic as psychologically anterior to political and familial and national difference has a distinguished modern literary history: the mire of misery into which Eric Maria Remarque's characters sink in his All Quiet on the Western Front ends by hollowing out the political causes for which they went to war. Nationalism and patriotism are now so much chatter of the forebrain. Wilfred Owen's famous poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” ends by declaring to a friend addressee that “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs […] you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” – that is, a line from the Latin poet Horace meaning: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country”. The slogan now stands out, not as a lapidary formulation of nobility, but as a ragged pretext for suffering whose reality exceeds anything patriotism could justify.
It is its play on such pre-modern and modern literary trajectories as much as the arresting pleasures of its prose that commend Matthew Murphy's self-published A Beckoning Warto the reader's attention. It is now available for sale as both a trade paperback and an e-book on Amazon, and deserves a worldwide readership and therefore a worldwide publisher.
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Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University.