Saturday, October 03, 2009

The War is Over

Things I didn’t write about over the last month or two, for one reason or another. Mostly connected with the La Terrasse war season, which you may or may not have noticed (in fact, I seem to have forgotten to write most of it).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

A novel based around the Nigerian-Biafran War. Split into sections set in the early and late 1960s (before and during the conflict), it follows Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University, husband of Olanna, whose parents are rich and corrupt with commerce. Olanna’s sister Kainene has an English partner, Richard Churchill, who makes a name for himself writing journalism on the war. With the addition of Ugwu, Odinegbo’s ‘houseboy’, and Kainene’s military friend Madu, a cross section of society is achieved. The intellectuals who want change, the establishment who want to keep making money, the military who want power and the poor in their villages who don’t really consider that they have a choice; although Odinegbo has Ugwu educated, and he finally becomes the writer Richard fails to be. The factions in the war are Igbo and Hausa, the main characters here all being Igbo. The massacre of Igbo civilians in 1966 is the point at which the novel kicks into gear; the descriptions of atrocities witnessed by Olanna and Richard in chapters 11 and 12 are brief, but shocking. Half of a Yellow Sun is as much a history as it is a novel: interesting, impressive and informative, its characters work insofar as they give you an impression of what it might have been like to be there, as this arbitrarily created post-colonial state, Nigeria, trembled then re-asserted itself. When the subject is this big, perhaps that’s all they need to do (would be unfair to mention that Pierre Bezukhov does so much more?)

Lipmann Kessell – ‘Surgeon At Arms’

From my mum, who buys this out-of-print book whenever she sees a copy. Her father features as the character Shorty, and although I read his own (private) war memoir years ago, I never got around to this before. It centres around the involvement of Kessell and Shorty as surgeons during the Battle of Arnhem, and it’s pretty incredible stuff. The long opening chapter finds them in an operating theatre in St. Elizabeth’s hospital, part of an area which sees heavy fighting, and which changes hands several times. When the Germans are in control they wander the wards, shooting the odd patient. When an SS officer tries to move the surgeons out mid-operation, this happens:
Shorty’s obdurate blue eyes looked the interpreter up and down as though he was inspecting a defaulter, and he remarked: ‘I’ve never heard such rot!’ Very deliberately he put back his gauze mask. ‘Tell your officer I protest most strongly.’ (p. 34)
Isn’t that just exactly the kind of thing you want to discover your grandfather did in the Second World War? The German officers’ manner is nicely characterised as ‘a frigid playfulness’ (p. 45). There is also the following fabulous piece of surgeon-geekery. Kessell, planning an escape attempt from Apeldoorn POW hospital (this is after nearly everyone else has gone – they stay for as long as there are casualties), can bear to leave behind everything except:
the specimen of a traumatic aneurysm of the popliteal artery which I’d removed the previous week and preserved in a jar. (p. 66)
This is a vibrant, matter-of-fact account of a campaign the author acknowledges to have been ‘a disaster and a military fiasco’ (p. 136). The book starts in the white heat of battle, and cools gradually through POW camps, escape and the hiding places employed by the Dutch resistance. Kessell’s tone is gregarious, he captures the characters of those he encounters briefly but effectively. He doesn’t even seem to notice his own accomplishments, blithely falsifying the extent of injuries in order to keep men in hospitals from which it was easier to escape than from POW camps; falsifying, too, the identity of a brigadier (they dress him up as a private to escape, though his severe abdominal wound makes walking almost impossible), and also the total number of prisoners. The men stand still but never in the same place for very long when they are being counted. Brilliant.

Tim Footman – ‘The Noughties: A Decade that Changed the World, 2000-2009’

By Tim out of Cultural Snow. In fine contemporary fashion with not just a double but a triple title, this is a zip through the last ten years for anyone who was there but somehow felt that they missed it, like a Guardian Weekly for an entire decade. Taking us neatly from 9/11 to the credit crunch, by way of the War on Terror, climate change, US TV drama and social networking, The Noughties glides swan-like through something that feels a lot more coherent than the decade itself feels / felt. It is useful to have events prioritised and summarised, but the fragmentation of the media which is a theme of the book make this process itself seem a little old fashioned. Not that it should be old fashioned, necessarily. The conclusion talks about the shift in culture over the twentieth century, when popular culture took over from high culture, and describes where the democratising influence of the internet has taken this. And not just the internet. De-centralisation seems to touch everything: war is de-centralised by being waged upon a noun (what causes more terror than war, exactly?); news is de-centralised by being taken away from professional journalists; wealth is de-centralised by the shift in the global economy towards Asia (and de-stabilised by becoming an abstraction of an abstraction); music is de-centralised in one sense by being taken away from the music industry, and in another by its increasing disconnection from fame; even truth is outsourced to something identified here as ‘truthiness’, which is ‘the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than those known to be true’ (p. 160). It is right that we do this, it is right that we do that. Some of this de-centralisation is bad, but by no means all. Either way, it is here to stay. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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