Sunday, February 23, 2014

How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston

After reading The Lie by Helen Dunmore I was encouraged to go on to read How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston (first published in 1974).

As with the Dunmore novel, the story is about two boys who grow up together although this time separated by class, religion and ethno-national identity.  The first half of the book is set in Ireland, the second half on the Western Front during the Great War.  The illicit friendship is described through scenes of naked swimming, lingering glances, risky assignations - all implying that the friendship has a dimension that is more than just ordinary.

Themes are:  the complex idea of legitimacy (both personal and ethnic); inheritance (both personal and ethno-religious); displacement of others; divided loyalties; oblique sexual-emotional non-conformancy; self-sacrifice; conflict (family conflict, class conflict, international conflict); the necessity (or perhaps I should say the inevitability) of violence; the relationship between fathers and sons (and mothers and sons).

Most impressive character is Major Glendinning:

His face went white.  He picked up his cane from the table and walked over to me.  He drew back his arm.  I knew what was coming.  The cane struck me on the right cheek, just below the eye.

"I dislike physical violence as much as you do, but there are some people who will not listen to reason."

"Where did you learn to be so evil?"

"The world taught me.  It has taken many centuries to build the society in which we live.  It would be a poor thing if a handful of emotionalists were allowed to destroy it."

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