Literary Review

Witness to the truth

World War I spawned literature of various hues. One hundred years later, we still grope for meanings and explanations. Here are a few books that give us some indication of the pointless nature of the Great War, told by individuals who either experienced it firsthand or wrote about it later.

Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear is based on his actual experience of fighting and wasting away in the trenches of World War I. Chevallier’s novel, though available in French for decades, was translated into English only as recently as 2011. The book has been called a “choral avalanche of anger, pity and deferred hopes”. Chevallier does not have a high opinion of humans in general. “Men are stupid and ignorant. That is why they suffer. Instead of thinking, they believe all that they are told, all that they are taught. ... Men are sheep. This fact makes armies and wars possible. They die the victims of their own stupid docility.” The pain and the horrors he witnessed convinced Chevallier not to be cautious with his words. Acquiescence, he says, is often a “mark of decrepitude”.

War Classics: The Remarkable Memoir of Scottish Scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front by Flora Johnston talks about a woman from upper class Scottish society, a lecturer in Classics, who went to live and struggle with common soldiers as a teacher with the army’s education scheme in France. The memoirs tell of the role played by thousands of men and women behind the lines to support the war and opens up a whole new world that lay just a few miles from the front. Keith also travelled across the devastated war zones after the Armistice and spoke of “a dream world, where everything happened... on a background of infinite horror”. She met the soldiers who had survived, saw tanks, clothing and weaponry lying littered across the battlefields of Europe and the war graves consisting of rough wooden crosses stuck in yellow mud and water.

Letters from Verdun: Frontline Experiences of an American Volunteer in World War I France by Avery Wolfe is about the conflict as seen by a “highly educated scion of America’s industrial heartland” who volunteered as an ambulance driver in Verdun. The letters portray the dangers faced by the ambulance drivers as they rescued the wounded from the battlefields. Photographs and maps embellish Wolfe’s narrative. In their Preface, editors William Harvey and Eric Harvey speak of the gradual change in the tenor of Wolfe’s letters; the hatred of the Boche giving way to admiration for German engineering and efficiency and the experience of conflict bringing home the idea “that enemy and ally share a common humanity”.

1914 by French novelist Jean Echenoz strips any illusions one may have had about the Great War. In his characteristic style, described by critic Walter Motte as laconic and suffused with dry wit, Echenoz shocks us with telling descriptions about death and the dying. Motte said that the “remarkable precision with which he (Echenoz) chooses words and images” demand an extraordinary level of alertness from the reader. It is an alertness that unquestionably brings rewards.

Enough has been said and sung about patriotism and heroism. We need books like these to approach the truth.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 9:26:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/witness-to-the-truth/article5970203.ece

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