Wednesday, October 10, 2007
"The Wars" - Timothy Findley
The War to end all Wars - more than 5.ooo.ooo dead, almost as many missing, 12.ooo.ooo injured.
Findley's 1977 "The Wars" is the story of a nineteen year old canadian, Robert Ross, who enlists in 1915 to fight in World War I, and is driven, partly through his own character and partly as a response to the bloodshed and cruelty he witnesses, to perform an act of both madness and beauty.
The story is told by an unnamed historian, who relies on photographs, letters documents and interviews in order to trace Robert's story from his childhood in Canada to his death.
Findley has been described as a great "teller of tales" but to my mind his strength lies elsewhere. It is not that his stories are imaginative, which they are - rather, they make up a whole world into which the reader dives, retaining not an ounce of disbelief. Just as in "Pilgrim" written 22 years later, "The Wars" is an entrancing book, which kept me mesmerized for the two days it took to read it.
Once in it, you can barely stand to look up from its pages, and while reading it you loose all sense of being a reader - you are someone who has fainted, or has fallen into a particularly heavy nap, and been transported, not into a dream world, but into a reality so far hidden from your personal knowledge, that is nevertheless, undeniably true.
Cleverly weaving his descriptions into the action, Findley never allows you to slip from his grasp. "The Wars" has no descriptive features that aren't part of the narrative - everything you see, hear and smell is rendered through your different narrators with the natural rhythm of life and death.
You go down the steps to the hold of the S.S. Massanabie with Ross and smell the stench of hundreds of horses kept frightened in their own filth, with not a single porthole opened for fresh air, you see the only light provided by an oil lamp and feel the heaving of the ship. Your own revulsion is indistinguishable from the boy's as he is required for the first time in his life to kill a living being, a horse that has fallen and broken his leg, and you see the white of the horse's eyes as he stares with confusion and pain at his murderer.
It is in the trenches, where Robert is kept from the front line through his officer status, that the madness of war quickly starts to pour through: some of the boys go mad, some turn into cruel beings, most simply die.
Then there is Rodwell, a man who does the unthinkable: in the middle of the carnage he collects small wounded animals, birds, rabbits, hedgehogs, toads and nurses them in a makeshift hospital under his bunk bed. His suicide, after he is forced to watch the torture of a cat by his comrades in arms, and the letter he leaves Robert to deliver his daughter, provide the emotional climax of "The Wars".
After a leave of absence in England, Robert goes back to the front and the events precipitate: he is raped by fellow officers whose identities he will never know and from there on we feel him slowly retreating into his own mind. He is constantly, inexplicably, spared while men all around him are killed during attacks.
It is in the aftermath of one such attack that Robert, accompanied solely by a black mare and a dog he has found among the debris, sets loose one hundred and fifty horses trapped into a burning train. He means to save them, and stables them nearby, but the army is, of course, in pursuit of the young traitor.
The horses end up burned alive and we are denied the relief of seeing Robert go down in martyrdom with them. He would survive, horribly disfigured, to be court marshaled and die at 26.
"Someone once said to Clive: do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we've done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I've never forgotten. He said: I doubt we'll ever be forgiven. All I hope is - they'll remember we were human beings."
During his months on the front Robert Ross killed three people: inadvertently, a german soldier who was assisting his escape, a senior officer who prevented him from saving a herd as their stable was under attack, and a soldier who tried to stop him as he made his final ride surrounded by 150 free horses.