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The Absolutist, by John Boyne

A very personal kind of hell

The Irish author John Boyne does not spare his readers. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had a German concentration-camp setting. Now The Absolutist takes place in the trenches of the First World War, an earlier manifestation of hell on Earth. Compounding his daily battle against lice, rats and liquid mud, Tristan Sadler, the 18-year-old homosexual anti-hero of this searing book, also has to cope with thwarted love and sexual guilt. He cannot rid himself of his agonised obsession with Chris, a man of the same age who every now and again allows sexual favours and then angrily backs away.

"Absolutist" is the name given to soldiers refusing to have anything to do with the war effort. So, instead of being sent out over the top as stretcher-bearers, at times with an average life expectancy of 10 minutes, they were often executed by their own side. Chris becomes an absolutist himself, disgusted at the everyday evil he sees all around him.

But Tristan does not follow him, and his story resumes after the war has finished and he is paying a visit to his former lover's sister. Still withdrawn and convinced of his own worthlessness, he finds the meeting moderately successful until he tells the young woman what really happened. There is no forgiveness, both then and years later in 1979, when he meets her once again, this time in his eighties and having become a respected writer.

There is an old-fashioned feeling to this book. Dialogue is formal and courteous, and the main plot is laid out in the leisurely style of a late-Victorian novelist catering for readers with time on their hands. Unlike in Pat Barker's novels of the same time, the few homosexual encounters that occur are described with reticent delicacy.

Some might question Boyne's turning again to peculiarly horrible history as a background, wondering whether some of the power of his writing rests on what he is describing rather than how he describes it. But now that concentration camps and First World War battlefields are thriving tourist-attractions, it is surely important that contemporary fiction continues to tell it how it was.

Even so, there is almost too much tragedy in this novel. Tristan, already cast out by his own family before the story starts, continues to despise himself for the rest of his life. Readable and well-written as his story is, there is still a certain relief when it is over.

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