Andrés Neuman is many writers; novelist, poet, short story author, and through the range of his diverse works he has shown immense talent and versatility. I first came to his works via the short story, and it is in the short form I know his work best. In short works he’s more experimental, and yet also personal, finding in the brief images of a story, the memories, the personalities, of those around us. The same sense of the personal also show up in his short novel, Talking to Ourselves. Although not as experimental in form, the narration showed an inventiveness in the perspective shifts, refining the story in fragments of lives that seemed lived by real people. But Neuman is also a different kind of writer, one attuned the historical and political. From his blog posts to his untranslated work Barbarismos, a dictionary of dark, alternate definitions, he is well attuned to the way language and politics intertwine.
To date he has written two novels that, if not fall into these broad categories, at least lean heavily in that direction: Traveler of the Century, and the latest, Fracture. Fracture is takes place over the last 75 years, starting with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and ending with the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Told around the story of Yoshie Wantanabe, Neuman constructs a story that which examines the major historical events in Japan, Western Europe, and particularly the United States. Alternating between a third person account of Wantanabe’s experience at Hiroshima and his later Journey to Fukushima, and the reminiscences of three ex-girlfriends, there are detailed descriptions of the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Argentine financial collapse, Chernobyl, and too many others to describe. Suffice it to say, if one of the narrators wasn’t there, they had an opinion. Where Traveler of the Century wanted to dig into the liberal tradition in Europe, Fracture is interested in the atomic age as both a metaphor and a problem that is still with us, not something consigned to the past. Given the real dangers of nuclear war, waste, and accidents, it is a laudable goal. And much like I thought when reading Traveler, if one does not continually return to these issue, they are forgotten, or overwhelmed by the expediency of the now.
As a narative, though, there was something missing. Both Traveler and Talking to Ourselves had a narrative that had its own logic, its own animating characters. Here, the characters don’t breathe, so much as explain history, explain political moments. Have no doubt, its well done, with a depth of knowledge that shows Neuman’s skill as a writer. And there are some brilliant passages and lines that make the novel enjoyable reading at times. But I couldn’t help but think the narrators, the ex-girlfriends were just historians, and not particularly good at it. Moreover, I didn’t really get a sense of the characters as living beings. Perhaps it was because all the narrators are looking back, all of their history is linear, well thought out, as if they had rehearsed it at length. Thee was no suspense and despite some good writing in places, many of the memories felt flat.
The story of Mr. Wantanabe is more interesting and there is a sense of his detachment from the world that comes through. His journey to the center of the disaster is a quixotic attempt to return to what he had lost years before. It also underscores the point that first he was a victim, and now he is one of the perpetrators. Nevertheless, he is a mysterious figure, because he never really speaks for himself, his exes do. It’s an interesting approach, and shifts the power dynamic, especially with a man who is always moving, never able settle in one place too long. And that’s where my initial irritation comes back, all I really have are the bullet points of his life against the backdrop of the 20th century.
Ultimately, Fracture is an ambitious novel, one that continues to show Neuman’s great talent as a writer. Compared to his other works, though, it is not quite as magical, and left me wondering what could’ve been. However, having read some of his 2019 book of experimental short works. Anatomía sensible, I know the future is bright.
I want to thanks the publisher for providing my review copy.
Mercé Rodoreda’s work is marked by a concise style infused with a deep attachment to the natural world, one that is both emotionless and yet full of beauty. Open Letter has published four of her novels, Death and Spring, War, So Much War, Camelia Street, and the latest, Garden by the Sea, and each of them has been marked with the same disarming style. The first two are more allegoric, and the latter two more connected to the real world, that of Barcelona and near by. As a traditional story with an arc of action, Garden by the Sea is, perhaps, the most complete, which should not dissuade a reader one way or another as all her novels are magical.
The narrator is the gardener of a large home on the Catalan coast, just outside of Barcelona. It is a large garden and he is a consummate professional, so much so that he describes his plants in great detail. It is detail, though, that comes as dead pan, as if the narrator were a simple man (not uneducated) uninterested in gossip, emotion, or reflection. An example,
Senyoreta Eulalia fell ill. She kept the last letters from her husband under her pillow and she would read them from time to time. And apparently she wept all the salt from her body.
The last phrase is classic Rodoreda.
The story comes at you slowly, no foreshadowing, questions to be answered in the unfolding drama. It’s a dislocating style, one that in its simplicity allows for quiet observation and leaves the reader to puzzle out the gaps. The novel follows the intertwining lives of three families, two who come from humble circumstances and marry into money. It is the rare story where marring into money turns out well, and Garden by the Sea is no exception. There is a Gatsbyesque element to the novel. Yet where the narrator of The Great Gatsby is reflective, aware, the narrator here doesn’t seem to care one way or the other what happens to the families. Much of that comes from the class divide that runs throughout the book. The narrator is an employee, a long term one, but an employee just the same. He watches as the families struggle to recover and relive the past. Naturally, one can’t and the decisions that led to the wrong people marring are unrevokable. Instead, repeat themselves as farce, as arguments and drunken battles the narrator sees from a distance. It is a refreshing approach to a family story. The tragedy is there, but like the flowers in the garden it blooms, dies, and disappears back into the dirt.
Emphasizing the past, is an older couple who raised the ill fated lovers. It is in their memories that we see the love that should’ve been. While the two rich families interact, they generally keep the gardener at arms length so we have no view into what is happening. Instead, the old couple keep the great romance alive and through them the gardener knows about it. Which leaves open the question that perhaps the marriages, and the untimely death of one of the characters, is not because of lost longing. That lost longing is only what a woman with a failing memory wanted. It makes the story, which otherwise seems straight forward, more complicated. Is this a romantic tragedy, or just one of the rich with too much time?
The richness of the language and intelligence of the story telling make Garden by the Sea another welcome addition to the works of Rodereda in English.
It is one of those fascinating experiences of reading that let one enter into old political arguments, wander through them as if in an attic, and find among the detritus of so much misplaced, or misspent, analysis, otherwise quality writing. Dimiter Dimov’s (Bulgaria, 1909-1966) writing is certainly marked by it’s time and in parts is not shy about them, yet underneath the cruft, the antiquated arguments that time has only made seem exaggerated, or, at least, mistargeted, is some solid writing. If one were to spend time wading in the intellectual past of the mid 20th century, Damned Souls is not a bad choice.
Damned Souls takes place in Spain right before the July, 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Dimov spent considerable time in Spain between 1939-1946. I came across his name in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise). In that story he is working in a veterinary lab with Zúñiga and they find themselves planning to help Republican refuges to return to Madrid via clandestine methods. It comes to nothing, as does so much in Zúñiga’s post war Madrid, but what is evident is his deep admiration for Dimov.
At it’s core, Damned Souls is a debate between conservative religion and an open, an in some ways ideal, worker centered society. It was the crux of the Spanish Civil war, so the novel fits within that context. As a novel, though, Damned Souls has to make that case as forcefully as it can. Or at least, that is what Dimov tries to do. It makes for occasionally overwrought moments. At its best, Dimov captures the frustrations of his characters. The first third describes the harrowing drug addiction of Fanny, an English woman, who falls in love a reactionary Jesuit priest. The desperation and the lengths she goes to get her fix are some of the best writing of the book. He really captures the sad determination of an addict.
The rest of the book takes place in the months before the war. Fanny, at that point not an addict, is the stereotypical upper class floater, more interested in having a good time than anything else. In a chance encounter she meets a Jesuit priest and falls in love with him. She begins following him around Spain, trying to get in his good graces. Finally, she lands at small town in northern Spain where he has set up a typhus hospital. He won’t accept her help, so she sets up a rival hospital. Next to it. As the outbreak spreads and more and more of the pueblo’s poor die futile deaths, it comes out that all the priest cares about is taking her money and reestablishing the Spanish empire. It’s that last bit that seems cartoonish, as if he could do it. Or perhaps it’s just the delusion that was at the back of Franco’s supporters. Because the arguments are so distant, it is hard to see them as real, even if they are the same ones in Doña Perfecta. Whatever the case, the descent of the hospital into disease is horrific, and, again, shows Dimov’s skill as a writer.
Ultimately, it is the Republican forces who take the camp over, and in a day remedy all the problems, delousing and burning all infect materials. It’s as if the old system was incapable, even when it tries to use modern methods, is incapable of helping the people. Dimov avoids any discussions of Republican politics, other than trad unions, but there is an undercurrent here that without knowing his work better, is hard to decide which way he is going. Is this socialist realism, or just an over exuberant anti-fascist? That aside, the debates are still present and would not feel as heavy handed if, and this is perhaps the biggest issue with the book, Dimov didn’t continually throw around generalizations, usually in the form, the Spanish are a nation of fill in the blank.
Despite it’s flaws, Damned Souls is well written and should be read, not as a book about Spain, but as one author’s reaction to Spain and the Civil War.
If the short story, in relation to the novel, is an underappreciated form, then flash fiction, or it’s better sounding name in Spanish, the Microrrelato, is even in an even worse state. There are imaginative authors who’ve dedicated whole works, even careers, to the art. I’ve covered writers such Javier Tomeo, Ángel Olgoso, or Zakaria Tamer, and to that group belongs the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. She has writes longer, more conventional length novels and short stories, but one of her hallmarks is the micro story. In her sixth collection, she explores war through its contradictions, failures, and ironies.
Before looking at a few of the pieces, it is important to discuss genre. La guerra is not necessarily a collection of stories. There is narrative in some of the pieces, but that is not really the focus of the work. Instead, they might be better understood as aphorisms. They don’t fit the strict definition of an aphorisms since each pieces is several sentences long, but the effect is similar: a principle idea is announced, the some form of contradiction appears, and a koanic idea is expressed. The basis for some pieces is history, and in others it is purely fictional. In the latter case, the genre takes the form of a fable.
The success of a work like La guerra rests not in the narrative surprises or the characters, but in the insights one can add to the already well trod paths through history and its action adventure section, war. One of the better examples is in the piece La carga de la Brigada Ligera (The charge of the light brigade)
La famosa carga de la Brigada Ligera, durante la guerra de Crimea, fue una masacre. A los altos oficiales que comandamos la caballería británica y la lanzamos contra los rusos, se nos consideró incompetentes. Se habló de la disorganizatión, de los errores. En fin, se nos acusó injustamente, sin convalidar tanto esfuerzo. Sin nuestra incompetencia, nuestra disorganizatión, nuestros errores, jamás se hubiera inscrito esa página de salvaje heroísmo en la historia del ejército británico. Sin el tesón y el sacrificio de los inútiles, ¿qué sería de los héroes?
The famous charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War, was a massacre. For us high officials who commanded the British carvery and threw them against the Russians, they consider us incompetent. They talk of disorganization and errors. They accuses us unjustly, without checking with much effort. But without our incompetence, our disorganization, our errors, there never would’ve never been written in the history of the British army such a page of savage heroism. Without the tenacity and sacrifice of the useless, what would happen to our heroes?
The piece takes on the fictional narrative voice of the leaders of the British army during the Crimean War. From there, he attempts to justify the disaster which over the years, thanks to Tennyson’s poem among other things, has become a piece of legendary heroism. Of course, it was also pointless and the generals, in this telling, don’t care what so ever about the soldiers. The idea of unintended consequences and legends they grow up around an event.
A more fanciful story is in Los olores (The Smells).
Entre las ideas menos prácticas de la inteligencia militar de Estados Unidos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se inventaron bombas que no mataban pero que provocaban al estallar un violentísimo mal olor. Las flatulencias y la halitosis fueron los aromas elegidos para los ensayos, como si el olor a cadaverina no hubiera embotado ya los sentidos de los soldados amigos y enemigos. Tuvieron más éxito, en cambio, las bombas con olor a cebolla frita y pan caliente, capaces de provocar epidemias de nostalgia, pero nunca se usaron porque eran peligrosas incluso para la tropa propia.
Among the least practical ideas of the United States military intelligence during the Second World War was the invention of bombs that didn’t kill, but which on exploding let out a violently bad odor. Flatulence and halitosis were the chosen for the tests, as if the smell of rotting flesh had already confused the senses of the soldiers, both friend and foe. The bombs would’ve had more success with the smell of fried onion and warm bread, both capable provoking epidemics of nostalgia, but they would never be used since they would’ve been dangerous even for US’s own soldiers.
Here the story seems pure fiction, something so ridiculous it is parody. But Shua balances the humor with a couple truths about war: everyone gets used to the killing, and nostalgia, fist observed in soldiers, and renamed morale, is something strong. The story is also a good example of her style. While this seems fictional, other pieces are based purely in fact and lead to a similarly constructed conclusion. In this one, she plays with the violence of war and the stupidity of the ideas that often are applied to it.
A collection like this is tricky to pull off. In general, Shua does, but there are the occasional miss. In general, the success hinges on the last sentence. Does it flip the story, break out some ironic insight? If not it can lay flat. I was impressed with the number of these that worked. War is a subject that is to oversimplify and easy to make trite. Shua has done the opposite.
La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) is the second book in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Madrid trilogy, picking up a few years after the close of Largo noviembre de Madrid. It is the early 1940s and Spain is under the control of General Francisco Franco, who has dealt harshly with the defeated Republican forces. Madrid is gripped by poverty and fear and, as Zúñiga makes clear, an ever present fear hovers over the city in general, and in particular the defeated. Where Largo noviembre tried to look at the war through the lives of the inhabitants of Madrid (generally civilians in his telling), La Tierra looks at how those same inhabitants, now cornered, often poor, suffering after a year or two in prison, are trying to survive. The survival is tenuous, made even more so by many of the veterans who are trying to keep a resistance alive. Almost eight years later it is obvious the resistance was futile, but in the midst of World War II, as the Germans were loosing there was some sort of hope, misplaced, but one that provided a kind of balm for the defeated. It is in this milieu that Zúñiga sets his nuanced refection on memory and survival.
Las ilusiones: el Cerro de las Balas (The Illusions: Bullet Hill) is an aptly titled opening story for Zúñiga’s second book in the Madrid Trilogy. Largo noviembre de Madrid ended in October of 1939 with the entrance of Franco’s forces into the capital. The collection here takes off in 1943 in a city devastated both physically and emotionally by the war. The earliest impressions gives the reader are of a poor gypsy woman in rags scratching out a living in a bar. It is an image of more than poverty, which is certainly every where from cheep, run down shacks to the beer that is served warm in dirty glasses because there is neither enough power during the day to keep the refrigerators going nor enough water to wash adequately, an image of the outcast. The narrator is a veteran of the war, a republican soldier who has done a little time in a concentration camp. He works in a laboratory of a veterinary clinic with a Doctor Dimitar Dimov, a Bulgarian who the narrator doesn’t know well, and given that Bulgaria was allied with the axis at the time, perhaps he shouldn’t get to know. Nevertheless, as the walk the destroyed city and drink warm beer a confidence emerges and Dimov asks if he can find a Bulgarian who was part of the International Brigades. It is a dangerous proposition, since, if found, he would be in grave danger. The two men though begin the search and the friends of the narrator give varying bits of help, revealing a country sized with fear, a place where the defeated live in fear of more imprisonment. Ultimately, they decide the best thing is to escape to Viciy France. It is a plan full of illusions that doesn’t really face the reality that France is controlled by Germany and is as much a threat as Spain. There is no escape except in little pleasures such as that of the gypsy woman. The narrator decides he will get close to her despite her appearance, despite who she is. If there is no freedom, at least he can find something with the other outcasts. Of course, this is only an illusion, one that is common in Zúñiga, one that leaves the narrator in a devastating limbo unable to escape what they know should be abandoned.
Antiguas pasiones inmutables (Ancient, immutable Passions) describes a post war Madrid, returning to the old ways, the rich taking possession of what had been theirs before the war, the poor living in hovels. Yet it is also a story of shifts of fortune that such destruction brings about, allowing a few people who were completely separate before the war to mix, to change, not in some ideological sense, but in practical terms. Told in sentences that continually shifting mid sentence between the perspective of the principle figures of the story, Adela, a maid, and Reyes Renoso, a rich landowner, so that their stories, although disparate, reflect a growing interconnectedness. Zúñiga is a master stylist and each one sentence paragraph, some three pages long, bring the threads of each character’s life together in the contrasts of their experience. She is a semi-literate young woman who has scraped by in the neighborhood, who has always looked at the great house on the edge of the slum where she lives and has wondered what it was like inside. He is the last survivor of a a rich family that was all killed during the war who takes over the house. Wounded and recovering in the home, he is a prisoner in some ways, surrounded by the same people who must have thrown the grenade that wounded him. Each is an observer. He of her; she of the world outside the great windows, which she never would have imagined looking thorough. They draw closer, but it is not clear if it is anything more than transactional, but each gives up part of their past to do it: he an elite sense of class that was destroyed when his family was executed; she a box of papers a republican soldier, a boyfriend most likely long since dead, gave her and told her she had to keep. Lines are crossed, borders frayed as the characters seek refuge of a sort from the war’s aftermath.
Camino del Tibet (Tibetan Road) is a search for a better way of living, one that is so out of sync with its time, it renders the believers unmoored from all hope. A group of theosophists meet in Madrid waiting for their leader, trying to decide what to do. They are dedicated members, one pair refrains from sex even though they sleep in the same bed, others refuse to discuss the left, not because they are pro Franco, but because to analyze the world in those terms is to participate in the physical. It might seem an odd choice for a story about post war Spain, but it fits nicely given that the Franco regime was a Catholic dictatorship which had executed theosophists. Moreover, given the ever present backdrop of World War II, the discussions of ethereal terms, both seems brave and pointless, both in the sense that they will achieve nothing and that faith doesn’t matter. And without the leader, without a sense of purpose, a future, it becomes very difficult to maintain the group. It is a story emblematic of all those faiths, religious or otherwise, that meet the hard reality of the war’s end.
Sueños después de la guerra (Dreams After the War) is a sad and beautiful gem that looks at the lives of the soldiers, now defeated, who lives of poverty and disappointment. Although the disparities between the rich and poor show up in a story like Antiguas pasiones inmutables, Sueños adds another layer of tragedy. Carlos is a shoeshine man who works at an expensive hotel where he hears the the men talk about high finance and wealth all things he has nothing to do with, nothing he can ever hope to access. He a man from humble beginnings who had become a construction worker. During the war, though, he served with distinction and was promoted to lieutenant. He was somebody. Then the war ended, his girlfriend was killed and he ended up in prison. All he has left is the bottle and his dreams. Zúñiga doesn’t stop with just the personal disaster of one man’s war. Despite his fallen state, his complete and utter hopelessness, his ex-comrades look to him as someone who can lead the underground, who can keep the fight going. It’s pointless, a dream that will never come true and Zúñiga makes clear that all dreams, the ones of the past and those of the future do little but make the reality that much more painful.
Pero no era un vencido sino que algo peor había golpeado su hombría: una vergüenza de las muchas que los hombres ocultan a lo largo de años y que a veces, cuando en un momento inesperado vienen al pensamiento, entre tantos esfuerzos como hacemos por olvidar, cruzan delante de los ojos, clavan sus garfios en las vísceras más hondas y el rostro se osxurece y nos sentimos desfallecer aunque luego vovamos a hablar de fútbol, de la corrida en la plaza de las Ventas y se alardea de algo que deseamos poseer y que no hemos conquistado, pero la cicatriz de aquella vergüenza está allí, cruzando el pecho.
La dignidad, los papeles, el olvido (The Dignity, the Papers, the Oversight) and the Interminable espera (Interminable Wait) both cover similar ground. In each a veteran of the war are working actively with the Resistance, one distributing papers, the other observing a pick up. In each fear and suspicion mark their every move. The temptation to give up, to find relief in the radio, any kind of distraction. What makes these stories so strong is Zúñiga carfuly balances the same of loosing, the hope for a new future, the fear of getting caught, all the while finding an emotional depth in all of them.
…los receptores de radio cuyas averías arreglaba, traían palabras divertidas y música, girando el interruptor less callaba o les hacía hablar a su antojo y lo prefería a estar como él estaba, sumido en la fasedad del recuerdo proque éste, cada vez que le invocamos, nos da una imagen distinta, va cambiando sin parar según lo que anhelamos o nos conviene, por lo cual no recordamos lo que pasó sino distintas invenciones que acaban siendo engaños.
The last story, El último dia del mundo (The Last Day of the World) requires a note on style. All the stories, save El último are written in long, single sentence paragraphs, some that span several pages. They are perfect for the complex narration, swithing between subjects, as the past and the present mix in the characters mind’s. El último is a transitionary story. As in Largo noviembre which contained one story the took place after the fall of Madrid, El último is the begining of the end of the emediate post war. The story follows three people who refuse to leave their neighboorhood as it is redeveloped. Their defiance is a silent one, one that will end in their destruction. There is no deep psychological examination of fear and hope. That’s gone. What is left is the commercial, the new paradise. This, of course, is not the paradise that is intended by the title of the book, which is a quote of the International. As the vision of a dictatorship, the language changes to simpiler, shorter sentences, which capture a more utilitarian sense of language.
While not quite as magical as Largo noviembre de Madrid, La tierra será un paraíso is an excelent collection. When taken in the context of the trilogy, the work is even stronger, examining the profound depths of the end of the war. Where Largo was constrained with action, upheaval, the constant bombing, La tierra is quite, frozen in terror. The two states are perfectly represented in the structures of the narratives and the stylistic approach of the writing. These two works are a must for anyone interested in the Spanish short form.
For a country whose most famous literary work is a novel, Doña Perfecta has the appearance of an early novel, a novel whose shifts in style and the occasional lacuna in the plot, suggest a nascent form, one that hasn’t quite come into shape. This, of course, is an error. Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1877 novel is a brilliant work whose structure, style, and themes all seem quite modern, and underscore the struggle between the modern, industrial world of the cities and the conservative, inflexible one of the rural provinces. It is a story, though written nearly 25 years before the start of the twentieth century, presages the internecine battles of the next hundred years.
The titular Doña Perfecta is the matriarch of an upper class family that comes from a rural provincial capital. It is an isolated place. The journey from the modern train station takes several hours by horse back through land that rife with bandits. It is ringed with with shanties and the town has been in decline for some time. None of this stops Doña Perfecta and her circle of friends, which includes a high church official, from looking suspiciously at anything that comes from the Capital, Madrid. When her nephew Pepe comes to town to marry her daughter and claim his ancestral lands, the conflict between these two worlds collide.
Galdós does not make it clear what Pepe exactly does to set off the ire of Perfecta and her friends. He lets the inhabitants relate what they’ve heard, leaving the reader in a game of telephone where what one hears about the young man might be upsetting, but is it true? The accusations are, naturally, all of a religious nature, but essentially are reducible to one idea: he has used his scientific thinking to disrespect the traditions of the city. Pepe, a good engineer more interested in building a physical future, one built on reason, cannot see what harm it is to walk through a church and look at the art. In the age of over tourism, it is hard to take this as a great crime, but it does show an inflexibility, an unwillingness to even listen to Pepe defend himself. Pepe doesn’t do that very well for he speaks in modern terms, ones that they are unable to understand.
Galdós’ characterizations are one of the true strong points of the novel. While he does employ a narrator that gives local color, or pushes the plot along with details from larger events, particularly the revolts of the 1870’s, it is in exploration of the voices of the narrow minded inhabitants of the province that the novel comes alive. Doña Perfecta is a particularly exasperating one, but one of those dark characters who sparkle in fiction. Her ultimate fate, dark and just as it is, is also tragic, and given her moral rectitude one she is completely unable to see.
Ultimately, Doña Perfecta reveals a Spain unable to shake itself of a lethargy and embrace the modern world. It is a failing with tragic consequences for both the characters of the novel, and the country as a whole.
Thomas Boyd’s 1923 WWI novel is relatively forgotten work in the literature of the war. Although, F. Scott Fitzgerald called it a work of art in his review, it does not quite rise to that status. Overshadowed by the likes of Hemingway and the Europeans who had more to say on the subject, Through the Wheat does have a place when looking reading the war.
Through the Wheat follows a Marine, Hicks and his company as they go from green Marines to experienced combatants. The conventionality of the narrative is more implicit, than explicit: there are none of the traditional scenes of boot camp. Nevertheless, even implicitly stated it slows the book at the beginning. One problem is Boyd attempts to capture the voices of all the men, show their boredom, excitement, the emotions that drive them. Unfortunately, he is not quite able to capture it. There is no real sense of who the characters are and the novel seems conventional, overly dramatic, and plodding. As the novel develops and more and more of Hicks’ comrades die, he becomes the focus and Boyd gives a deeper sense of the internal life. But even then, Boyd keep Hicks at a distance. This is a both a feature and a defect. Hicks is not a thinker; he is an average Marine and before he joined he was an average man more concerned with food and women. That approach cuts off a rich vein of experience and makes the book, especially in the open pages, a popular novel more interested in adventure.
As the book progresses and the American campaign in the Muse-Argonne becomes bloodier and most of Hick’s comrades die, the light tone disappears. Boyd describes the horrors Hicks endures in a mater of fact tone, one that drops horrifying images so quickly that the reader has no time to reflect on what has just happened. It is a reflection of Hicks’ inner life. Hicks slowly becomes numb to these images, but he hardly reflects on them. There is the momentary disgust, but all he cares about is getting relieved and getting a good meal. In this sense, Through the Wheat might most closely resemble All Quiet on the Western Front. The descriptions of the battlefield are certainly similar.
The sights of the dead in all of their postures of horror, the loss of those whom he had known and felt affection for, the odor of stinking canned meant and of dead bodies made alive again by the head of the day, the infuriating explosion of artillery; the kaleidoscopic stir of light and color, had bludgeoned his senses. Now he lay, incapable of introspection or of retrospection, impervious to the demands of the dead and the living.
Hard, cold, and unfriendly dawn broke over the earth like a thin coating of ice shattering in a washbasin. In the eerie light the tangles masses of wire, the weather-beaten posts from which the wire was strung, the articles of equipment and clothing once worn by men looked unreal. The woods ahead, a grayish black, lay against the sky like a spiked wall.
Through the Wheat is probably one of the best fictional descriptions of the WWI by an American of the era. Hemingway, Dos Pasos, ee cummings, all wrote novels about the war, but they were concerned with art, with a politics that at first glance seems missing. One could read the book as both as an anti-war book, as well as a testament to the Marines. When I was reading the first section I couldn’t help wonder if the reprint was driven by the 1926 release of What Price Glory, a successful film that made the Marines seem like a lot of fun. It is the lack of a heavy revulsion at the war, the use of Hicks, the dispassionate observer, that certainly places the work outside the canon. It took me quite a while to appreciate some of its elements. It is certainly not a great novel (a few less adverbs would’ve helped), but it is more reflective of the war than any of his contemporaries.