I’ve immersed myself in war for the past month — not with any focused intention; it just happened. It began when I read The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra. It’s the story of Amin Jaafari, an Arab-Israeli surgeon practising in Israel, who operates on the victims of a suicide bombing, only to find that the bomber was his apparently happy and not particularly political, Westernized wife, Sihem. After dealing with his own shock and the suspicions of the police and his colleagues, he then goes on a pilgrimage to find out why she could have changed so much without his knowing and how she could have done something so contrary to his own instincts.
Great plot, really: who could resist it? But the book wasn’t satisfying to me. Amin is fleshed out, but Sihem is a two-dimensional character. There is a moment towards the end of the book when Amin theorizes about the path Sihem must have travelled:
Sihem must have been carrying that hatred inside her forever, long before she met me. She grew up among the oppressed, as an orphan and an Arab in a world that pardons neither. She must necessarily have had to bow very low, like me, except she could never straighten up … she must have been carrying around a wound so awful, so hideous, that she was too ashamed to show it to me; the only way for her to be rid of it was to destroy it and herself together …
But he pushes away the possibility of understanding her act and refuses to hear his nephew Adel’s explanations:
I don’t want to hear anything else. I don’t fit in the world he’s describing. There, death is an end in itself. For a physician, that’s too much to swallow … Adel’s asking me to come to terms with death as an ambition, a dearest wish, a legitimacy; he’s asking me to accept what my wife did … that is, to accept exactly what my physician’s calling forbids me even in the most desperate cases … I don’t want to bury the dream that made life worth living as it will never be for me again.
It’s incomprehensible to me, too. I can accept that people brought up in physical and intellectual poverty and with hatred of another group reinforced by the endless exchange of hostilities, each of which engenders ever more deeply hate and the desire for revenge, can find life not worth living. I suppose I can accept the idea of sacrificing one’s life for a cause. But it’s hard for me to accept that someone who has been exposed to love and comfort and a world of possibilities can turn their back on it. It’s the failing of the book for me that we never get to know Sihem other than through Amin’s memories.
The language is stilted, as you can see from the quotations. It’s not clear whether this is a fault of the author or the translator. So: thought-provoking, fascinating material, but not a great book.
My next conflict was the siege of Sarajevo, as depicted in The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Stephen Galloway. The siege lasted four years, 1992 to 1996, during the larger Bosnian War, but the book describes only a few months: long enough. The achievement of the novel, for me, was that I identified with two of the characters and got a feeling for what living in a war zone must be like. We follow three people: Arrow, a sniper; Kenan, the father of a family, who regularly crosses the city to get water, and Dragan, a baker, whose wife and child have left. The element of the story that gives the book its title is based on fact: a cellist who played for twenty-two days in the street after twenty-two people waiting in line for bread are killed by a bomb.
I don’t find Arrow convincing, because she’s one of those unrealistic sort of superhero types: a cold and accurate killer with nothing human about her. It’s true that her methodical approach falters when the cellist is playing and her target listens to him, but the most meaningful moment concerning her character comes right at the end of the book — and it’s not enough to explain who she really is.
It’s Kenan with whom I identify the most, and it’s the repetition of his pilgrimages to get water that deepen my understanding of him as a person like me who just happens to find his life torn apart by a war. Each time he goes out, he fears getting shot by the snipers on the hills surrounding the city. But of course he has no choice. Each time, he considers when and how to cross the bridge and faces his possible death. The snipers appear to shoot randomly; it’s like a cruel game played by bored children. Death arrives, or is avoided, by chance.
Listening to Albinoni’s Adagio, which is the music played by the cellist in life and in the book and therefore almost a required accompaniment to reading it, I recognize that music, with its repetitions and variations, can be a kind of echo of daily life — as well as, sometimes, an escape from it. In the novel, each repetition of Kenan’s journey to get water strengthens and deepens my identification with him. I imagine the feelings he must have as he stiffens his spine to go out yet again. I imagine how he feels as he looks at the destruction of the city that was home. And I think about the hope that must still exist, that there will be an end to the madness and a return to some kind of normality.
Finally I went on to the aftermath of the Second World War, as depicted in The Reader. I read the excellent novel by Bernhard Schlink a few years ago but saw the movie recently. Kate Winslet’s award-winning performance brings Hanna Schmitz to life and the movie in general reignited my interest in the book.
Hanna is perhaps a little lacking in intelligence but it’s the fact that she is illiterate that is the secret on which the story is based. She has an affair with a teenage boy, Michael, but she is short with him and withdrawn. However, he begins to read to her and this binds them as much as the ritualistic bathing and lovemaking that are the other central aspects of their illicit relationship. It is a cruel shock to him when she leaves one day with no warning.
The next time he sees her is in a courtroom where she is one of the defendants, all of whom were prison guards at a concentration camp. They are charged with allowing a group of their women prisoners to burn to death inside a church. They are all convicted, but Hanna is given the longest sentence because she accepts responsibility for writing a report on the incident. Had she revealed her illiteracy, she would not have been considered the leader and would have received a lighter sentence.
During Hanna’s incarceration, Michael sends her books and she teaches herself to read and write. Michael’s life is deeply affected by his relationship with Hanna and his need to understand what she has done. Here are some of his thoughts:
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding … I wanted to pose myself both tasks — understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.
The complexity of Hanna’s character means that we’re forced to deal with all the shades of grey that make up the moral spectrum. Our justice system is, necessarily, constrained to deal with simple divisions: guilty or not guilty, and I don’t see that we have any alternative to that. Her heartfelt question to the judge, “But what would you have done?” puts us there, in an impossible situation. What decision would I have made if I had been there?
Reading stories with a background of war or other violence, as well as reading about current conflicts all over the world, shines a light on human behaviour that is often deeply depressing. Sometimes, though less often, it’s heartening. What a mixture of nobility and savagery we are.
I wonder how I would behave during a war. All my life, I have kept my fingers metaphorically crossed that I won’t ever have to find out.