A couple of weeks ago I found a brief report in the news of two men found in the Vietnam forrest, having lived in hiding since 1973, a father of 82 and his now 41-year-old son. They were last seen fleeing their village after an explosion that killed the man´s wife and two other children. They were recently found by villagers looking for wood in the forrest. The ill father is now in hospital, and the son is with relatives, trying to cope with civilization.
Clearly, the Vietnam war is not entirely over. Perhaps wars never do end with a peace treaty as we would like to imagine, they just kind of... fade. Danish novelist Susanne Brögger, in her excellent novel "The Jade Cat" (which I should re-read and write about on the blog, really) says that it takes three generations to become free of a war. Personally, I´m just second generation from some of the worst frontlines of the second world war and I have thought a lot about that.
As it happened, when I read that in the paper I was in the middle of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O´Brien, a book I bought after reading a very interesting review of it at Robby Virus´ excellent blog. I had a feeling it might be the kind of book I would like, and I was right. Not only is this a chilling account of the ordinary foot soldier´s hardships, it´s also a discussion on storytelling. O´Brien mixes accounts (of what the carried, both materially and mentally) with stories (both of what happened to the characters in his story, and the stories that they told each other), and also adds some other stories from his childhood about how he handled traumatizing experiences of death and loss of loved ones. It´s categorized as being a collection of short stories, but I didn´t think of it that way. They are so well connected - the same people appear again and again - that it felt much more like a novel to me.
Stanley Kubrik has said that an artwork is always upliftning and never depressing, whatever it´s subject might be. I can´t think of a single book I have read that demonstrated this truth better. However, it would seem that O´Brien thinks otherwise:
"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.[...] In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe "Oh.""Many have testified that veterans rarely speak of what they have been through, except perhaps for a few bland anecdotes. And reading O´Brien´s account of the stories the soldiers told each other, you can understand why. They are pointless and obscene - not the kind of stories the folks back home would understand or know how to handle. And I suppose that what O´Brien is trying to do is tell those stories anyway, within a framework that makes them digestible, and make sense - somehow.
I find now, trying to write about this book, that it is really hard. And you know what, I think that this is such an exceptional and brave story that all I can say is: read this book! O´Brien must have worked so hard to write it, and if you only read one book in your whole life, this is one of the best choices you can make, that´s how important it is. I´ll just finish with another brilliant quote from O´Brien, on the subject of grief and storytelling:
"...I had begun to practice the magic of stories. Some I just dreamed up. Others I wrote down—the scenes and dialogue. And at nighttime I'd slide into sleep knowing that Linda would be there waiting for me. Once, I remember, we went ice skating late at night, tracing loops and circles under yellow floodlights. Later we sat by a wood stove in the warming house, all alone, and after a while I asked her what it was like to be dead. Apparently Linda thought it was a silly question. She smiled and said, "Do I look dead?" I told her no, she looked terrific. I waited a moment, then asked again, and Linda made a soft little sigh. I could smell our wool mittens drying on the stove. For a few seconds she was quiet. "Well, right now," she said, "I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like ... I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading." "A book?" I said. "An old one. It's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading.""