Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Five

Sebastian Faulks
From his official site
Wow. This is a powerful book and it profoundly affected me. Rather than A Novel Of Love And War, I would subtitle it A Novel Of Frailty And Resilience. There are so many stories in this book, so many lives affected by both choice and circumstance. But isn’t that what lives are, choice and circumstance? In this book there are tales of great human suffering, great human triumph and the effects of both.

Throughout the book there is birdsong in unforeseen places and at unexpected moments. It is a lovely little thread running through the book – a metaphor for both entrapment and freedom. I stumbled upon this picture--

From the National Library of Scotland’s digital library
“Canaries which have been rescued from amidst the ruins in shelled areas”
The explanation given at the time the photo was published says, “Well known for their fondness of animals, this image shows British soldiers checking up on the health of some canaries who were found in residential areas that had suffered heavy shelling.” Well, yeah, um, they're fond of animals and stuff but there’s also the fact that they used canaries underground to check for the presence of deadly gas. The birds felt the effects much more quickly than humans and served as a warning. Canaries saved lives. But I understand propaganda for the homefront.

I could quote many passages because so many passages touched me. But here are a few which are indicative of the spirit of the book.

From 1917, page 362--
There was no alternative but for men to go blind round each corner. The fate of the first two or three was a good indicator to those who followed. Stephen watched the men go on madly, stepping over the bodies of their friends, clearing one fire-bay at a time, jostling one another to be first to the traverse. They had dead brothers and friends on their minds; they were galvanized beyond fear. They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal.
We do this to them. We send them to war to be killing machines and when they come back we expect them to turn it off. Kill! Don’t kill! Why do we continue to do this when we know what it does to them and to the lives of everyone they touch? Twenty years after the end of WWI, what did we do? We began again. Men who had been turned into animals sent their sons for more of the same. One story near the end of the book included Levi, a German soldier who happened to be a Jewish doctor. Levi volunteered to fight for his homeland and he survived WWI. What do you suppose happened to him and his children during WWII?

From 1978 Elizabeth, pages 247-8--
She felt a little presumptuous. Having lived to the age of thirty-eight without giving more than a glance to the occasional war memorial or dull newsreel, she was not sure what she now expected to find. What did a “battlefield” look like? … Would history be there for her to see, or would it all have been tidied away? Was it fair to expect that sixty years after an event—on the whim of someone who had shown no previous interest—a country would dutifully reveal its past to her amateur inspection?
Elizabeth saw that battlefield and its memorial. And this, I think, is my job: to remember, to visit the battlefields, to be kind to veterans, to do what I can to preserve and honor their sacrifices. When I was on a plane last month there were several young men in telltale camouflage. After giving his standard lecture, the flight attendant said, “And as always, we want to thank our men and women in the military for their service.” We applauded in agreement. It was a small thing, but life is mostly made up of small things. The big things don’t come around very often, do they?

There is a town in England (or maybe it’s a village, I can never keep it straight) called Wootton Bassett. Each time a soldier is “repatriated,” (his dead body brought home) the route passes through this town. When this happens, the people of Wootton Bassett line up to pay their respects. They do this one small thing. One person in this small English town once stood in silence as a coffin passed and others followed. This is what it takes.

I have to believe in the power of good over evil. I have to believe that love can conquer hatred… even though the world offers scant evidence of this. If there is one overpowering lesson of this book it is that the human spirit can triumph where there is hope. I have to believe in this hope.

I must end with this passage. It was near the end of the war, page 403--
We are not contemptuous of gunfire, but we have lost the power to be afraid. Shells will fall on the reserve lines and we will not stop talking. There is still blood, though no one sees. A boy lay without legs where the men took their tea from the cooker. They stepped over him.
I have tried to resist the slide into this unreal world, but I lack the strength. I am tired. Now I am tired in my soul.
Many times I have lain down and I have longed for death. I feel unworthy. I feel guilty because I have survived. Death will not come and I am cast adrift in a perpetual present.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.

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