Meditation on the futility of war
THE QUESTIONS THAT OLDER MEN ASK OF MEMORY ARE NOT THE KIND THAT THE YOUNG ASK,WRITES RAVI VYAS
Ismail Kadare, who was awarded the Man Booker international prize for literature this year and often tipped for the Nobel, is the first Albanian writer to be taken notice of in nearly 80 years. As a small Balkan country tucked away at the southern end of former Yugoslavia, Albania was sealed off from the world's radar after the Second World War, although it was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between Italian and German troops against the Albanians for the control of the Balkan peninsula. The War provides the backdrop for Kadaré's classic novel, The General of the Dead Army, a meditation on the consequences of war, a hugely moving account of the meaning of duty and the tragedy that blind obedience entails.
In good company
Comparisons are always invidious but The General of the Dead Army stands on the same shelf as other anti-war classics like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and other recent anti-war classics from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And, of course, so many others. Like the rest, The General has become a classic because it talks, in the final analysis, about the futility of war, in a meditation, both on the so-called justification of war and of the helplessness of men trapped in the war machine for no fault of their own. What the Italian writer, Italo Calvino says in The Path to the Spiders' Nests (another anti-war classic), drawing on his experiences in the Italian partisan war against the Germans, applies to Kadaré's armies too: "For many of my contemporaries it had been solely a question of luck which determined which side they should fight on".
It is early 1960s, nearly 20 years since the Second World War ended. An Italian General, accompanied by a sinister priest who is also an Italian army colonel, is sent to Albania to locate and collect the bones of his countrymen who had died during the War and return them for burial in their native land. They are armed with maps, lists, and other important information such as measurements, dental and other records of the missing personnel. The team tours the countryside, organising digs and disinterment and, as they try to find the dead sons of forgotten families, they wonder at the sense and scale of their task. The General constantly talks to the priest who is accompanying them about the futility of war and the sheer meaningless of the whole enterprise.
As they go deeper into the Albanian countryside they find their footsteps followed, sometimes anticipated, by a fellow General who is also looking for bodies — the bodies of German countrymen. Like his Italian counterpart, the German too struggles in the remote countryside, against the cold and rain and the hostile terrain. It is a thankless job looking for the remains of dead `souls' merely to take them back home for a decent burial. Is it worth the exercise? Isn't this a mistaken sense of national honour?
The true heroes
And when memory and imagination meet, the true heroes are not the heroes who win medals: the conventional heroes are by and large no good for war novels; they stand too close to the centre of the values of war ("my country, right or wrong"). It is the anti-hero, the nondescript foot soldier, who emerges as the real hero, the one who "fights without hope and (hence) fights with grace". Memory always likes a man without medals.
If Kadaré's General joins the ranks of all-time classics, it is because, in the final analysis, of his style: plain, unvarnished, unheroic. He has merely reproduced the experiences of partisans in the Second World War in Albania, and laced it with his own imagination to give us a picture of what it would have meant to the thousands who died defending it against fascist forces. There is no plot, no climax, no happy ending to this book. It is narrative without heroics and, by and large, true. It is as his memory preserved it, and set down as a picture of war without comment. As the epigraph to All Quiet on the Western Front put it, "Death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it".
(The Literary Review)
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