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No Man's Land: Writings from a World at War, Edited by Pete Ayrton: Book review - moved by the master storytellers from the front line
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Wednesday 15 January 2014
How Michael Gove would hate this trail-blazing book. Not just another Great War anthology, Pete Ayrton's selection gathers 47 authors from 20 of the countries that fought the first genuinely global conflict. He chooses only prose testaments – fiction, memoirs and, notably, that hybrid forerunner of the "new journalism" moulded by these writers' genre-busting ordeals.
From trench, barracks, dugout or (very important here) hospital ward, the soldiers and civilians of all nations concur that – in Céline's words – "we have got into the habit of admiring colossal bandits".
Here the victims of those bandits speak, from India (Mulk Raj Anand) to Armenia (Vahan Totovents), and from Serbia (Milos Crnjanski) to New Zealand (Iris Wilkinson, aka "Robin Hyde"). From ironic comedy (Jaroslav Hasek) to wrenching violence (James Hanley), across a vast spectrum of feelings and fronts, none finds the carnage remotely "just" in its aims or conduct. True justice lies in the duty to witness and record.
Even avid readers of First World War prose will find eye-opening discoveries here. For me, they ranged from the Greek Stratis Myrivilis, who both honours the suffering of animals and observes in ghastly detail the effects of a gas attack, to the Chicago-born Mary Borden's Pinteresque dialogue in the amputation room of a hospital where "the business of killing and the business of living collide", and the abject absurdity of the Croatian Miroslav Krleza's "Hut 5B". There, the ideals of European chivalry shrink into a world of "only pain".
Familiar names do feature: Lawrence; Faulkner; Sassoon; Brittain; Roth; Remarque. However, Ayrton's cosmopolitan sweep (superbly served by his platoon of translators), and the prominence rightly given to women writers, mean that he must omit some Anglophone classics.
So no Robert Graves or Ernest Hemingway; and no Edmund Blunden, David Jones or (sadly) e.e. cummings. If Ayrton picks plenty of authors – from Henri Barbusse to Theodor Plievier – whose trauma drove them sharply left after the war, then he also finds space for dandies of the right: Céline himself, Ernst Junger, and Wyndham Lewis, who insists on the "exceedingly romantic character" of his battles.
Apart from ideological rebels against the murderous folly of Europe's ruling class, the cynics and contrarians find no trace of "just war" either. Few pieces are as gently moving as the Punch humorist AP Herbert's account of a brave soldier wrongly shot for desertion: "If it makes people think about these things, so much the better". Those people should include Secretaries of State.
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