Books: Pens against lens

A Week in Books: Boyd Tonkin
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MY WEEK began in a red blizzard of shattered bone, severed limbs, frothing intestines and spilt brains - and all without leaving Leicester Square. The extraordinary virtual-reality bloodbath on Omaha Beach that opens Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan serves up a banquet of food for thought (provided, of course, that you can keep it down). For me, one of its effects was to draw a line in the crimson D-Day sands between what cinema and literature can do with the machine-tooled carnage of modern combat.

In the most literal sense, the triumph of special effects in film beggars description. How could any mere scribbler hope to compete with the wraparound guts and gore of Spielberg's DreamWorks studio? Even before this rivalry from the hallucinatory image, voices from the battlefield often knew that their real business lay elsewhere. The poets of the First World War did not always choose to downplay the anatomical side of that slaughter just because of squeamishness or gentility. They knew the score, all too well. And they grasped that their job was to seek meaning in a place that annihilated sense, not simply to inventorise the vast morgue of the Western Front.

When it comes to meanings, Spielberg stops being a wizard and turns back into a child - or rather, an idiot savant, fantastically gifted and yet utterly naive. On the moral and historical fronts, this director could hardly argue his way out of a paper bag, let alone out of a besieged Normandy salient. This is where complicated words come into their own.

Within a few years of the war's close, novelists had distilled its horrors into an ambiguous blend of pride, regret and deep-dyed irony. By 1948, even such a blustery performer as Norman Mailer could show - in The Naked and the Dead - that the minefields of war belong as much in the ethical as the physical realm. (Extracts from that novel appear in Little, Brown's new, 1250-page Mailer compendium, The Time of our Time.)

Come 1998, and mass entertainment seems to have opted for a rudimentary recipe of cliche-plus-carnage. Spielberg and his peers can manage pity and terror showily enough. Paradox and absurdity still defeat them, even if the movie GIs moan about their mission in the time-honoured celluloid way.

Back in real history, Utah Beach, adjacent to Omaha, witnessed a lightly- opposed US landing with a mere handful of deaths. Yet, during the dress rehearsal for Utah, a German squadron out of Cherbourg had ambushed a flotilla in Lyme Bay and killed many hundreds. A dozen deaths during the real thing; 700-plus in the practice run: this was a world that deserved Joseph Heller, not Steven Spielberg. Catch-22 remains the more realistic (rather than naturalistic) guide to Europe in 1944.

The other side of war that Hollywood will miss involves its aftermath. Here again, fiction can fill the gaps the screen leaves blank. The new novel from Irish author Peter Cunningham (whose father was the only Irishman to win a Military Cross on 6 June 1944) traces the later lives of two friends whose shared experience of D-Day both unites and divides them.

A splendidly lush, richly eloquent chronicle of two intertwined careers in a changing Ireland, and of the woman both men adore, Consequences of the Heart (Harvill, pounds 10.99) amounts to much more than a study of post- traumatic disturbance. Yet his nagging memories of war plunge the narrator into a sort of existential solitude. "There was no-one with whom I could discuss those crucial hours," he laments, "Describe them, yes, to people who had not been there, but not discuss them".

Movies can describe, now with a matchless, graphic intensity. Books discuss. We still require the words of war.