Friday, January 25, 2013

War's Realities

Review Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War

If you want to read a gripping, graphic account of World War I soldiering in the tunnels and trenches of northern France, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is your book. If you want to read a love story framed around World War I, skip Birdsong. Its subtitle, A Novel of Love and War, is a bit misleading as the novel is light on the love part. A more apt, though clunkier, subtitle could be a novel of attempted love numbed by war.

At various points, Faulks mentions birds to thread this theme through Birdsong, for example, “In the wonderful quiet, when the German guns had stopped, they heard the song of a blackbird.” Perhaps he means to imply that main character Stephen Wraysford’s ability to love takes flight or sings like a bird after the war. In my opinion, this symbolic bird never leaves the nest. Wraysford tries to love, but seems unable due to a vacuum of love in his childhood and then the horrors of war. He remains a grounded dodo bird.

Although I don’t see birdsong as metaphor for love here, I can see—but only with camo-covered field binoculars—how love fits in the subtitle. It’s not in a traditional, romantic sense. This novel shows love’s imperfection, and then on top of that, what a mess we make of love, including fighting battles that steal any hope that love is even possible. Faulks gives us a contrast of war’s inhumane coldness and the passion/security he calls love. He also gives us wildly contrasting views of intensity: sexual passion and unthinkable atrocities. One is doing everything that feels good; the other is doing nothing that feels good—and in my opinion, Faulks presents both as immoral.

Birdsong is not a book I like. It is a book I respect, however. Faulks starts the pages crackling with passion of two young lovers in 1910 and ends them in 1979 with flat facts bequeathed to subsequent generations by the lovers’ destructive betrayals. In between, he bloodies the pages with graphic World War I live action. Stephen Wraysford, the character linking 1910 with 1979, seems a joyless drifter from beginning to end. Nearly all 483 pages are about him; yet I did not sense I ever knew him, despite having read many of his emotional responses to both love and war actions in the novel. I found it hard to care, even when war seemed to develop his conscience and mature his view of love.

What seems more like the main character in this novel is the war itself. In much the same way that Tim O’Brien’s July, July reunion account lapses into vivid Vietnam War flashbacks, nonwar parts of the Birdsong story seem but vehicles to shout, “War is hell.” And Faulks powerfully communicates this message with graphic details of war strategies and failed plans, soldiers’ grisly injuries and deaths, and soldiers’ emotional coping mechanisms.

Strategies like using tunnels and trenches were educational for me. Reading about limbs being blown off and much worse was extremely difficult for me. At times I had to turn away. (Maybe that was the point.) And then the wartime narrative dragged tediously on and on. (Another point, since the war rumored be over any battle now lasted four years?) Learning about men’s emotions in the midst of this unthinkably inhumane saga was what changed me.

My ancestors who saw World War I action are gone, but now I have an inkling why my father and a former boss, who both saw World War II action, teared up and could not talk about their experiences. I want to cry just thinking about the horror they’ve held inside all these years if they have seen even half of what Stephen Wraysford saw. He never really recovered from that war. My father and employer, however, soldiered bravely on in civilian life to overcome and become productive, positive, well-rounded, generously loving men. I appreciate what they overcame to accomplish this even more now that I’ve read this novel.

That I appreciated this book without liking it is to Faulks’ credit. His portrayal of the men’s brave perseverance through war’s horrors is inspiring. Soldiers braced themselves for death at any time, whether entering a tunnel, crouching in a trench, or running into shell fire toward German barbed wire. I felt claustrophobic just reading about being in the tunnels. So many exploded and collapsed, burying alive many of the novel’s characters. I also found the soldiers’ disciplined obedience interesting. Unless I missed it, no soldier spoke of World War I’s big picture or international politics. There seemed no overarching, grand philosophical purpose for their sacrifices—just uncompromising obedience to military superiors. Their country had entered this war; that was reason enough to fight.  

I was touched by the loneliness enforced by the delicate balance of bonding with men you knew might die any moment. One recurring emotion was the isolation soldiers felt when their loved ones could not understand war horrors. They wanted to shake the numbness—maybe talking about it would help—but they learned no one wanted to listen, and furthermore, how could they understand?

You might be able to understand better after reading Birdsong.

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