This book was a recommendation from another blogger. During the course of 2014 I am reading WW1 related books and I asked for some suggestions particularly any books dealing with the experience of Commonwealth soldiers .
Like The Lie and Wake which I reviewed here this a a novel rather than memoirs. Timothy Findley is described as being one of Canada’s foremost novelists although I have to confess that I had never heard of him before.
The novel follows the fate of young Canadian,Robert Ross. A family tragedy propels Robert to enlist in the cavalry and after a brief period of training he is shipped off to France.
Even during training Robert soon realises that the image of a glorious and heroic war that he has been sold is probably not what awaits him and his fellow recruits.Whilst out for a run on the prairie, Robert and a comrade bump into Taffler, a former football star and now war hero, throwing stones at a bottle:
‘The distance,’ he said, ‘between our lines and theirs is often no more than a hundred yards. Did you know that?’
‘One hundred yards,’ said Taffler. He gestured at the remaining bottle. It was green and had a tall, thin neck. ‘All you get in this war,’ he said,’ is one little David against another.’ Then he threw – and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.‘
Once over in France we see the same picture and chaos that Robert Graves and Hemingway painted of their own War experiences.
‘Not a single man was on his feet. One man lay alive on a stretcher while at the other end the stretcher bearers curled like caterpillars – dead…………… No one spoke. The dead all lay with their faces in the mud – or turned to the walls of the trench. This was the only way they could be told apart from the wounded. ‘
So far so Blackadder , but what is fascinating about this book is the structure of it. The story is circular………it ends as it starts, although the significance and power of the beginning of the novel are not clear until we have followed Robert on his nightmare journey.
At times his story is told in a traditional 3rd person narrative but it is also interspersed with apparent interviews with other characters and historical documents all of which help to bring home how very personal Robert’s story is even though it takes place against a backdrop of global conflict.
Transcript : Marian Turner – 1
‘You will understand from what took place, why I cannot tell you what he looked like. I suppose such things are of interest. Well- of course they are! (LAUGHTER) Everyone wants to know what people look like. Somehow it seems to say so much about a person’s possibilities’
Findley also wrote short stories and plays and at times the descriptions are overwhelmingly vivid. Robert and some comrades become trapped in an overflowing dyke in the pitch dark and on horseback. He is confused by the large objects that keep bumping against his horse’s flanks together with a heavy fluttering sound………only to discover that the objects are the bloated corpses of dead soldiers and the fluttering comes from the crows feeding on them.
As this is a book dealing with war experiences most of the characters are necessarily male. There are two particularly fascinating and not altogether positive women characters however.
The first is Robert’s mother. As we meet her she has already lost one child and fears, with Robert’s departure for the Front that she will lose another.Her descent into addiction and madness is reminiscent of a Eugene O’Neill character.
‘I know what you want to do. I know you’re going to go away and be a soldier. Well-you can go to hell. I’m not responsible. I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you but life I cannot.I can’t keep anyone alive. Not any more.’
The second is Barbara D’Orsey, his cold, hard hearted lover collecting wounded officers as a badge of honour only to abandon them when they need her most.
This is a harrowing tale of a young man’s quest for life whilst surrounded by insanity.It is hard to say too much more about this book without writing a spoiler, so I’ll stop.
At the end of the novel, ‘ the archivist’ finds a photograph of Robert and his sisters playing with a pony ;
‘On the back is written: ” Look! You can see our breath!” And you can.’