Sunday, December 01, 2013

Nineteen Twenty-One by Adam Thorpe

Have just finished reading Nineteen Twenty-One by Adam Thorpe.

The narrator is a weedy intellectual Oxbridge student called up right at the end of the Great War, the war ending before he is actually posted to the trenches.  Too cowardly to reveal himself as a lefty pacifist, he is injured during basic training, and thus unintentionally acquires the status of a war combatant.  Discharged from the army he retires to a broken down cottage in the Chilterns to write what he hopes will be the defining war novel.

Except that the drafts he produces are rubbish, inauthentic and pretentious.

Realising he needs inspiration he goes on an organised tour of the battlefields, which in 1921 still have much of the detritus of war in place.  Thousands of others are also visiting the former trenches, looking for the graves of family killed in the war.  The narrator falls pathetically in love with a young woman looking for the grave of her brother, and has a sordid affair with a middle-aged German woman looking for the grave of her son.

Throughout the novel characters appear who illustrate some aspect of the First World War - a farm labourer whose genitals have gone (and drops his trousers for a fee); a Chinese worker in France who shows him the "hand of General Haig" (in a deep dugout a skeletal hand that protrudes from the mud wall); a vast ossuary filled with unknown bones and open to the public who line up, dressed in black mourning clothes, to visit what might possibly be the remains of someone they once loved.

"We've still got it in the bone, the war.  It went too deep.  It's still in there, right in there, inside.  Right in the marrow.  Even those who are getting born, now, it's in them too."

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