You don’t often get to see the First World War from the Balkan perspective, so Istros Books‘ publication of this monumental doorstopper of a novel, translated from the Serbian by Will Firth, deserves a round of applause. I was sent this book for review at Necessary Fiction quite a while ago, but to my shame I never got around to it. I have now come across my rather impressionistic review notes and am at least publishing them on my blog (far smaller fry, I do realise), because I can’t do much editing or updating directly online at the moment, but I can just about cut and paste a Word document (it only takes about an hour or two, which is far too long for such a simple process).
Not everyone had been a hero. Not everyone kept quiet.
A word of warning to all readers expecting a concise picture of life during WW1: this is a much longer and more ambitious book, a broad canvas aiming to cover all the diversity of experience of the First World War. It would be wrong to call it a collection of short stories or vignettes either, as characters and stories emerge, repeat with variations, are built upon and thus swell into a musical theme within an orchestra that for the most part remains tuneful. To continue with the metaphor, we find just the occasional cacophonous confusion.
We encounter here a vast array of characters of all nationalities, from all walks of life, all occupations, both genders, all ages. Some of the characters are historical, although their stories have more than a touch of the apocryphal and fantastical. You will come across Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife having a conversation in the mortuary after their assassination; Jean Cocteau gorging himself with buckshot so that he will attain the minimum weight to enlist in the army; even Rasputin and Lance Corporal Hitler make an appearance. But it is predominantly the story of ordinary folk – hustlers, con men, pimps, soldiers, volunteers for the Serbia Blue Cross, tradesmen in Istanbul – and their more fortunate or wealthy peers: opera singers, society beauties, students, industrialists, doctors.
An aura of doom and the burden of history permeate this work, lightened every now and then with odd anecdotes, touches of humour, human-interest stories. The initial conviction that ‘one shot, one shout and one charge would resolve everything’ gradually gives way to incompetence of the military commanders, failures of the Red Cross, disillusionment of ordinary soldiers and civilians.
Here are a few scenes which particularly stuck to my mind:
Major Miyushkovich’s beloved wife Ruzha abandons him on the first day of war. He dies heroically in battle.
Russian muzhik soldiers severely wounded, given painkillers in hospital, suddenly start speaking German, discoursing on erudite topics. However, the author points out that ‘men groaned and died in the same language – in the east and in the west’.
A young Polish student and a girl dying of tuberculosis find love and refuge, squatting in a Parisian apartment whose owners have fled . They scavenge for food and make love like the last people on earth. They have one week of happiness before death and the military strike them down.
Fritz Krupp, wannabe artist with insufficient talent (shades of later world wars there?, despises Picasso and the others who have made a creative home in Paris. So he becomes a bomber pilot, keen to bomb Montmartre and Montparnasse into oblivion.
The humour and lightness of the early anecdotes give way to descriptions of the relentless drudgery, harsh winters, typhus epidemics of later years. There are grotesque touches like the horse with dogs in his belly, being fed them with minced meat from dead comrades (a form of horse cannibalism, which is shocking but sadly all to believable).
Fritz Haber is a German chemist who produces poison gas to better serve his country (yes, he has bought into all that ideological discourse). A little cloud of chlorine from Ypres mounts up and travels all the way to Karlsruhe and kills his wife Clara, who was opposed to his using science to bring about death.
Not even the end of the war holds much hope, because, as we now know, the lessons were not learnt from its unclear, messy ending. And then the Spanish Flu in its immediate aftermath: the smallest and most sinister anti-hero of this novel, who does not distinguish good from evil, who attacks with abandon.
A book to dip into and read over a longer period of time, rather than straight through from cover to cover, it provides an alternative picture to the First World War, quite different from the dominant Anglo-French interpretation. A necessary read, indeed!