Nuremberg Rally, Invasion of Poland, Dunkirk …

James Meek

  • Ghost MacIndoe by Jonathan Buckley
    Fourth Estate, 469 pp, £12.99, April 2001, ISBN 1 84115 227 7
  • The Twins by Tessa de Loo
    Arcadia, 392 pp, £6.99, May 2001, ISBN 1 900850 56 7
  • Riptide by John Lawton
    Weidenfeld, 322 pp, £16.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 297 64345 2
  • The Day We Had Hitler Home by Rodney Hall
    Granta, 361 pp, £15.99, April 2001, ISBN 1 86207 384 8
  • Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris
    Doubleday, 431 pp, £12.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 385 60169 7
  • The Fire Fighter by Francis Cottam
    Chatto, 240 pp, £15.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6981 8
  • The Element of Water by Stevie Davies
    Women’s Press, 253 pp, £9.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 7043 4705 9
  • The Bronze Horsewoman by Paullina Simons
    Flamingo, 637 pp, £6.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 00 651322 0
  • The Siege by Helen Dunmore
    Penguin, 304 pp, £16.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 670 89718 3

The advantage of a story set in wartime is that all the characters are obliged to form a relationship with death. Death is the life and soul of the war party. You can get death to come to parties in peacetime, too. Murders happen. Cars crash. Cancer buds. But he isn’t expected in every house, on every street. In the novels of European peace, the consequences of betrayal are difficult to define, let alone dramatise, in the dispiriting but seldom fatal mess of divorce, poverty or failure. In war, the proximity of death makes treachery a clearer action. Death turns the simplest relationship into a ménage à trois: the girl loves a soldier, but the soldier is flirting with death. No scene is too humdrum to be energised by the ubiquity of death. In Ghost MacIndoe, Jonathan Buckley introduces the war in the fifth line with the sentence: ‘The postman tipped his helmet to Alexander’s mother.’ The postman wears a helmet? Something is out there trying to kill postmen? That’s war, that is.

The British Army still maintains a large and active garrison in Ulster, but despite that war has never been further away from the reality of most of our lives. In school, boys who play war games with model soldiers aren’t viewed with suspicion by their teachers, whereas boys who carry knives into the playground are likely to be reported to the police. This may be wise, but the boys with knives understand something about war that the boys with model soldiers don’t: war is an intimate business. Some of the nastiest things happen close up, between individuals. Sometimes they don’t involve weapons. At dinner parties, journalists back from war zones are occasionally asked what it was really like. Perhaps the most accurate answer would be to rape the hostess, murder the host, cut the children’s throats and set fire to the house, without any explanation. There is much talk of war crimes, as if all war was not a crime.

And it isn’t war which fills so many new novels. It’s ‘the war’, the Second World War, still ‘the’ even though it ended 56 years ago. It’s not as if there haven’t been any wars since 1945. There have been about three hundred. It’s true that people haven’t fought and died everywhere in the world. They’ve fought and died only in Indonesia, Greece, Iran, Vietnam, India, Bolivia, Pakistan, China, Paraguay, Yemen, Madagascar, Israel, Colombia, Costa Rica, Korea, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Burma, Malaysia, Colombia, the Philippines, Thailand, Tunisia, Kenya, Taiwan, Morocco, Guatemala, Algeria, Argentina, Cameroon, Hungary, Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan, Oman, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Zaire, Laos, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, France, Cyprus, Zambia, Gabon, the US, Uganda, Tanzania, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Namibia, Chad, Czechoslovakia, Spain, the Soviet Union, Britain, El Salvador, Cambodia, Italy, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Chile, Turkey, Ethiopia, Portugal, Mozambique, Mauritania, South Africa, Libya, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Ghana, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Mali, Panama, Romania, Senegal, Kuwait, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Niger, Croatia, Georgia, Bhutan, Djibouti, Moldova, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Tajikistan, the Congo, Russia, Mexico, Nepal, Albania, Yugoslavia, Eritrea, Macedonia and Palestine. One crude tally puts the number of dead at well over twenty million. Yet writers keep going back to ‘the war’.

The war has the attraction of familiarity. Writers have less explaining to do, and explanations are fatal to narrative. British writers assume British readers come equipped with a basic framework: Hitler, Nuremberg Rally, Chamberlain, Invasion of Poland, Dunkirk, Churchill, Blitz, Finest Hour, Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, D-Day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. Nested in this framework are bespoke vignettes which require no elaboration. A European writer inventing a story for a European audience set during La Violencia in Colombia – this lasted from 1948 until 1958, and resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people – must deal with an alien set of people and events: cruel liberal and conservative elites, costeños and cachacos, the martyred left-winger Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the tyrannical Mariano Ospina Pérez. There are no such complications for the Dutch writer Tessa de Loo in her novel of Hitlerite Europe, The Twins. There is no need to explain why Jews are seeking shelter in the homes of Dutch families, or why the Dutch are heartened that the British are bombing their country. We know. The Colombians know, too.

The familiarity is cherished by writers not for the sake of retelling well-known episodes but for the new stories to be made in the gaps between them. The war isn’t just familiar. It’s big, in time, in space, in cast. There’s space for any genre, any costume and any voice. You can make it a detective thriller, like John Lawton’s Riptide, set in London in 1941, featuring Sergeant Troy of the Yard. You can make it modern picaresque, a frenetic burst of lyrical futurist imagery, like Rodney Hall’s The Day We Had Hitler Home, which is haunted by the presiding monster-to-be of the war to come: an injured German soldier, arriving in New South Wales in 1919, whose name is Adolf Hitler. Or you can make it like Five Quarters of the Orange, a novel largely set in wartime France but so steeped in recipes that half the characters – Framboise, Cassis, Pistache – are named after foods. Despite the narrator’s half-hearted attempts to persuade us that it cannot be so, family conflicts and the rigours of Nazi occupation are constantly obscured by thick herb and apple sausages, warm artichoke salad and clafoutis. ‘We had paupiettes, those little parcels of veal and minced pork, tied up with string and cooked in a thick stew of carrots, shallots and tomatoes in white wine,’ she recalls. ‘I looked at my plate with sullen disinterest [sic].’ The logical next step is a house-makeover novel set during the Blitz. Francis Cottam gestures towards this when the hero of The Fire Fighter takes against the look of the bombproof den the authorities have provided for him in the bowels of the Tube: ‘Finlay looked up. Babcock had replaced the bulbs and shades and in so doing had changed the character and effect of the lighting in Finlay’s quarters.’

In Britain and the US, the war is thought of as a righteous war, stout-hearted democrats against genocidal aggressors. It is not to deny the essential truth of that, or the wickedness of the Nazi and Japanese missions, to recall the more nuanced reality: the fact that Britain began and ended the war as an imperial power, withholding democratic rights from millions of subjects, the fact that the US fought with a racially segregated army and made use of senior Nazi scientists and Japanese officials after its victory, or the fact that to beat Hitler it was necessary to appease Stalin, to the point of allowing his murderous prosecutors to sit in judgment on Nazis at Nuremberg. The best novels of the war, like Gravity’s Rainbow, Catch-22 or The Tin Drum, are informed by a sense of the fragility of the concept of ‘enemy’, showing characters being systematically betrayed by those on their own side. Unlike Hollywood’s versions of the war, which inflate American valour in inverse proportion to America’s shrinking enthusiasm for personal risk, this year’s flood of war novels are aware that living through a war, as opposed to watching it from a distance of time or space, involves living with rumour, lies, ignorance and prejudice, and that dignity and righteousness are more to be pasted together afterwards than experienced at the time. It is for historians, biographers and screenwriters to write the bardic tales of military heroism which rocked the Sumerians’ world. For novelists, war is the bass line, not the melody.

‘The war is in fashion. There’s still money to be made,’ says Anna, one of the twins in Tessa de Loo’s book (they were separated as children, experienced the war on opposite sides, and met by chance as old women in present-day Spa). I don’t know whether de Loo meant to be ironic – her book has sold more than a million copies – but the success of The English Patient and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the fascination with the war on the part of the human mint that is Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and soon Band of Brothers) must speak eloquently to publishers. In one direct sense at least, the Second World War is about money: it was the last war that materially affected the lives of all the inhabitants of the world’s richest and most powerful countries. It could be called the last G7 war (one of the reasons post-Soviet Russia has been so anxious to make up the numbers to G8 is that it sees the grouping as a club for old war players). It is not just that the rich world’s ancestors went off to fight, but that those who stayed behind were living in a state of war, too.

An experience common to all postwar rich-world warriors, who have seen horrors beyond the confines of the EU, North America and Japan, is to return home to find that few care where they have been and why they were there. It happened to US soldiers back from Vietnam and to Russian troops back from Chechnya. In the homelands the lights burn bright, the shops are full and everyone is dancing, while their brave boys shed blood in some hell-hole. It was not like that to return from Dunkirk to London, or from Stalingrad to Berlin, or even from Guam to Los Angeles, during the war. Everyone’s life was changed. The war altered economies, altered landscapes and altered lives. In Britain, since 1945, the troops have marched away many times, but never – not Korea, not the Falklands, not the Gulf, not Bosnia and Kosovo, not even Northern Ireland – has war come close to most civilians. The war is the last war that almost everyone in the English-speaking world claims as their own; as if, in some weird generational transference, even those who were born long after it ended can proudly wear the honour they believe their predecessors earned merely by being alive at that time. And the rest, all those other wars which have happened since – well, they belong to someone else. Let a Czech write about Prague in 1968, or a Colombian write about La Violencia. That’s what Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez are there for.

No it isn’t. The experiences of Kundera and Márquez in their own countries, their Czechness and Colombianness, give their work something irreproducible by an outsider. But they are good because they are good writers, not because they have been blessed by war with a heritage of storylines. By the same token no war can make an ordinary writer less ordinary. The languor which blights so much English-language fiction, the sense that nothing matters, the feeling of characters gazing at the world from within double-glazed, centrally-heated rooms permeates many of these novels. Davies’s sketch of a character in The Element of Water could stand as a warning to all modern narrators: ‘Quantz, trained in the Canaris school of Intelligence but long returned to the Navy, couldn’t quite slough his habit of cynical observation.’

The Element of Water isn’t all cynical observation, but too much of it is. Set during the war and in the late 1950s, there are two central characters: Michael Quantz, a domestic intelligence agent in Nazi times who later becomes a teacher at an English military boarding-school in Schleswig-Holstein, and Isolde Dahl, born in Germany before the war but brought up in Wales by her refugee mother, who comes to teach at the school. These two spend most of the book composing ornate mental assessments of the places and people they come into contact with, while daintily examining their memories of events past. The characters’ senses merge in a hum of adverbs and over-intellectualised reflection. At one point even a corpse is described as ‘peering down with detached amusement’. At different times Dahl and a younger and older Quantz meander along the shore of Lake Plön, pondering peacefully, while the passions, horror and tragedy which they experienced are kept at a safe distance by the past perfect tense, the land of ‘had’: ‘her belly had churned . . . the train had crawled . . . she had consumed . . . she had stumbled.’ In case we didn’t get the point about Quantz the first time (that he seems to be watching the world on his own internal TV, then writing reviews of it), a few pages later he remembers Admiral Canaris, his wartime boss, sending him off to the horrors of the Eastern Front with the words: ‘I am asking you only to observe.’ When, twenty pages on, we hear that Quantz ‘frequently found himself paralysed in this unwilled immobility’, there is a sense that the bus has reached its terminus and everyone has to get off.

Wait, though. Late in the day (on page 159, fewer than a hundred pages to go) the novel wakes up. Having kept the war at memory’s length all this time, Davies enters it through the character of Quantz’s son, Wolfi, stuck in the ruins of Kiel with a dead mother and nothing to eat. Wolfi has all his senses: Wolfi is alive. Suddenly, there are deeds as well as words: the characters’ thoughts and experiences are part of the world, not outside it. For a while there is a nearly Kelman-like convergence of word, reality and thought. The people of Davies’s peacetime world are effete, jaded and gloomy, but most of all unreal, because they seem unplugged from life. War, the bringer of death, makes them alive. It casts a strange light on our times that a writer can imagine the inhabitants of a war long gone with more immediacy than the inhabitants of a peace still with us.

One thing these novels have in common is that there is virtually none of the traditional business of war in them. There’s no fighting. Five of the books are written by women, and in them the prominent struggle is against hunger. Davies’s story is energised by Wolfi’s need for food. Harris’s novel is a recipe book with a plot. De Loo’s Dutch family, and the Jews they shelter, fight starvation. Paullina Simons and Helen Dunmore have both written about the siege of Leningrad, during which citizens endured hunger and extreme cold for months on end. This may be for reasons of empathy – few citizens of rich, peaceful, present-day countries have been nicked by a bullet, but the sensation of hunger, however mild, is familiar to all – or because the people who buy and write literary novels are the same people who pore over and write the food sections in the weekend papers. But it is also because hunger is an evil which makes war more than a matter for soldiers; it makes war the business of troops and civilians, men and women, mothers and children. It is an enemy that can attack either side. It can cause a war, or be caused by it, and linger on after the war is over. By making food a central concern in novels of war, these writers portray war as a violation of the everyday. An ambivalence comes along with that. The everyday is not always a good place to be. Violation of the kitchen can be liberation. In de Loo’s book, the reunited twins move from restaurant to cake shop to frites stand, gorging themselves as they tell each other stories of wartime Holland and Germany. Anna, the German twin, provokes her sister with war nostalgia: ‘An emergency mobilises all the forces that normally lie fallow. That’s why people are so bored now. They have to go on creativity courses. That is the malaise of this age.’

The best of these books is Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. Dunmore isn’t Russian. She didn’t live through the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. This is the war, but it is not Britain’s war; there are no non-Soviet characters in the book. A Russian writer dealing with the same subject would have written something quite different. Yet Dunmore has taken the alien milieu and made a narrative that works. She writes in the present tense, which can be as infuriating as the past perfect, but much of the time her words shadow her imagination closely enough to give the vivid immediacy the style demands. There is a passage in which Anna, the Leningradka at the centre of the book, makes a dangerous visit to the family dacha on the margins of the city to gather the food she planted before the Germans came. Anna moves into a zone that is at the heart of the weirdness, stupidity and fascination of war, the no-woman’s-land between armies, where death is waiting in the sunlight, where there are no sides and no rule. Dunmore catches the lush torpor of Russian allotment-land in late summer, once an idyll for Anna, and fills it with menace, the expectation that at any moment uniformed killers will attack the lone woman gathering potatoes. It is a frightening convergence of normalcy and emergency, risk and homeliness, that stretches back to Guy de Maupassant’s story in which the two friends of the title, under siege in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, leave the city to go fishing at an old haunt beyond the safety of French lines; and stretches forward to stories not yet written, like that suggested by Chris McGreal in a recent report for the Guardian from the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘Shabunda was occupied by Rwandan troops but attacked and besieged by the Interahamwe in June 2000,’ he wrote. ‘As the town grew increasingly short of food, women ventured into fields on the outskirts in search of cassava for their families. Unlucky ones were abducted by the Interahamwe as sex slaves.’

It is hard for a writer who has embraced the war as a subject then to betray the war convincingly – to convey without preaching, without being explicit, the wartime yearning for peace – but that is what the writer must do who wants to set women trying to feed their households against the armies who do not let them. Dunmore manages it. Lack of personal experience, or lack of a presumed cultural inheritance, should not ward a writer off any territory. The long peace of mainland Britain is not so devoid of conflict to make it necessary to turn to war as a subject, but there is no reason to ignore war now that we happen to be at peace. Just let it not always be ‘the war’.