A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, May 11, 2008

To War Is Human

The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:

By Richard Bausch
Knopf, 171 pp., $19.95

If war didn’t exist, novelists would have to invent it. What other pursuit reduces humanity to a raw essence and brings into question the nature of civilization?

Richard Bausch’s Peace is a very short novel. Some would call it a novella, but that diminutive doesn’t do the book justice. For with a kind of magical economy, Bausch packs more into 171 pages than some novelists do with three times that number. He has written 10 previous novels, and he has learned how to propel a story, to lay traps for the reader, to entice one into turning the page. In his latest novel, he not only tells a story, but he also gives his characters back-stories, illumines their inner lives, and even finds room for a couple of subplots. But the book owes equally as much to his work in short fiction – he has seven volumes of stories. He knows the importance of placing the right word, the right image, in the right place.

The main plot is a familiar one: a patrol goes out on reconnaissance; some of them kill, and some of them are killed. The three principal characters are straight out of the melting-pot cast of a Hollywood World War II movie: a Catholic, a Jew, and a foul-mouthed bigot from the Midwest. And of course the great precursor Hemingway haunts any tale of grace under pressure, sometimes creeping into the prose itself: “They all stood silent and did not look at one another, or at Glick, and the only sound was the rain.”

It is the winter of 1944. Italy has fallen, but the retreating German army is still very much a lethal force, hidden in the mountains near Cassino. When an American patrol encounters an old Italian on the road, he agrees to lead them to where the Germans are. So Robert Marson, a corporal, is put in charge of two other soldiers, Saul Asch and Benny Joyner, to follow the old man into the hills.

It is a miserable climb. Freezing rain turns to snow as they go higher. Marson, the novel’s central character, suffers the agony of a blistered foot. Asch and Joyner bicker constantly. And when they find where the Germans are – or have been – a sniper attacks.

Has the old man led them into a trap? For the enigmatic Italian, who understands – or claims to understand – only a few words of English, was once their enemy, as Joyner keeps reminding them. “Non sono fascista,” the old man insists, every time Joyner utters the word “Fascist.” But from the moment we first see him driving his cart along the road, the man evokes the traditional image of Death: “A crooked shape in brown, a hooded man with dark thin hands, held the reins. Under the hood was only the suggestion of a gaunt face in shadow.”

Thus Bausch gives us a story with the resonance of a fable, but permeated with psychological realism. Here is Marson, alone, undertaking a crucial mission: “Not quite gradually, but with a slow widening of himself, he felt a lessening of tension, as if something had been released in his blood, a drug, preventing him from feeling what he had felt only seconds before.” And after he has completed his mission, “He had the sense, again without words, that life – all life, the life he had led and the life he had come to – had never been so suffused with clarity, a terrible inhuman clarity, made utterly out of precision, like the precision of gear and tackle in a machine. Except that he understood, in a sick wave, that this was utterly and only human.”

For that is Bausch’s point: War is human. And recognizing the moral implications of that fact can be shattering.