A Week in Books: The language of war

By Boyd Tonkin
Tuesday 31 December 2013 05:21
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Over the past month, unsolicited war – or mostly, anti-war – poems have swollen The Independent''s postbag with a paper tide of rage, scorn and sorrow. They stretch from the mawkish and inept (the vast majority) to the touching and skilful (just a few). Not since Diana's death has a public event sparked this sort of mass literary effusion. With a handful of exceptions, I wish it hadn't. Bad verse has a habit of melting sympathy to slush.

I suspect that war, and rumours of war, often take root in literature via more subtle strategies. In a martial nation, after a century of almost ceaseless conflicts hot and cold, the fear or memory of strife can haunt even the most peaceable writers. It may just be the mild paranoia that comes from reading new work amid a media bombardment from Iraq, but I've begun to detect a sort of military unconscious in the most innocent of texts. Don DeLillo, at least, might not call me crazy. His masterpiece Underworld stems from a dark vision of postwar American history, in which a bomb-shadowed "peace" can only ever mean the prelude to, the camouflage above, or the aftermath of, war.

Last week, I took part in an event during the Cheltenham literature festival's spring weekend to celebrate Granta's selection of the 20 Best Young British Novelists. It would be hard to think of a more exuberant, less timorous quartet than the nominees who talked: A L Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, David Mitchell and Andrew O'Hagan. Granta's chosen score are a confident, cosmopolitan bunch, a go-anywhere, do-anything crowd of narrative buccaneers. Editor Ian Jack justly admires their "energy", "liberty", "variety" and "spunk". Yet a reading of the extracts in his special issue (£9.99) still reveals muted, or not so muted, undertones of war.

In David Mitchell's story about an early-Eighties childhood, we hear about a family friend who's in the Royal Navy "on a frigate called HMS Sheffield". That same ship – wrecked by an Argentinian Exocet in 1982 – crops up as the source of fresh clients of a charity for war-blinded servicemen in the extract from Andrew O'Hagan's novel, Personality. The promising Peter Ho Davies contributes a chunk from his new novel about the interrogation of Rudolf Hess in 1941, after the bizarre flight to Scotland by Hitler's deputy. Elsewhere, Toby Litt harks back to Rupert Brooke's Grantchester, and Rachel Seiffert dramatises the poisonous legacy of suspicion and misprision that still separates Germans and Poles. Even the future-oriented Hari Kunzru imagines the global cyber-village being blitzed by the "catastrophic visitation" of a computer virus. Most uncannily, Philip Hensher's story "In Time of War" depicts a fluffy-headed Soho hedonist adrift in southern India while a messy conflict drags on somewhere to the North.

Fred the ditsy bar-fly starts to envisage "the crump and soar of munitions". Jolted into politics, he discovers a need to read about what he thinks a hotel waiter calls "Komflix". In fact, the staff are merely offering him breakfast. Fred now sees conflicts even in his cornflakes. He's not alone.

Perhaps this fictional hyper-sensitivity to battle hints that the language of war (and, I suppose, of anti-war) has now been hard-wired into our imaginations. "Never again"– the great cry of the 1918 armistice – has given way to "always sometime soon". At some level, our culture may experience war or its surrogates as a permanent state. In which case, Don DeLillo told the plain truth. And so, or course, did the George Orwell who summoned up a nightmare of endless, media-moulded belligerence in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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