War, love and self, Jane Stafford

Blood Money: the incredible true story of David Morris and the tragedy of Somalia 
Trisha Stratford
Penguin Books, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 26323 3

Escape from Bosnia: Aza’s Story
Sue McCauley
Shoal Bay Press, $29.95, ISBN 0 908704 42 9

Angel in God’s Office: my wartime diaries 
Neva Clarke McKenna
Tandem Press, $29.95, ISBN 0 908884 85 0

 

Anzac Day passed this year in a haze of misty self-congratulation. The fact that there are fewer survivors of World War II and almost none from World War I has changed the atmosphere and the meaning of the event from those crowded, boozy mornings I remember in the 1960s when the long procession to the cenotaph was headed by a small but still perky group of Boer War veterans. It can no longer be a celebration by those who returned — there are not enough of them left. Yet we are told it is growing in popularity. So what are we making it into?

All politicians — even the television news readers who seem to have adopted the role of political commentators with their simpers, nods and smothered expressions of sentiment — have commented favourably on the rebirth of Anzac Day, especially the involvement of the young. Surfers off the Raglan coast were shown on the six o’clock news paddling a wreath out into the swell, to the accompaniment of a soundtrack suggestive of Baywatch. A meticulous attention to style associated with a total absence of content seems a hallmark of the 1990s; not even distinctive style, but parody and pastiche, especially when it addresses the past, which becomes one amorphous, undifferentiated source of sentiment — history as style rather than as fact or linearity.

In the context of Anzac Day celebrations, this seems to have resulted in a complete confusion or perhaps conflation between the two world wars. World War II can be represented as a war against fascism and thus a struggle for democracy. But World War I — which, after all, Anzac Day commemorates — is a far more dubious prospect, far more difficult to see in terms of idealism and principle. Contemporary revitalised Anzac Days seem to have rediscovered all the old meaningless cliches of nationalism and we are again with what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie”, the gap between the reality of war and the rhetoric of those that send young men off to die:

If in some smothering dream, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear at every jolt the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

We need more of these terrible details to keep us from complacent abstraction. It is truism that the generations that went to war did not talk about it on their return. To Owen this was because society did not want to listen and because language would not let them. Literary language in particular needed refashioning to both conjure up detail and critique cliché. The New Zealand World War II poet John Male, newly rediscovered in the recent Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry, deals with this by writing about the impossibility of writing:

Not all of us are articulate
But is it necessary to tell everything?

Easy to record minutely the tortured
second between whine and shell burst,
the road bracketed, the Military Police at the corner
staggering concussed to the ambulance;
easy to record afterwards the mock heroics
about numbers on high-explosive shells,

These things are with us continually;
day after day; and we are careless and dull, finally,
from too much experience.

Who wants to be articulate? These
are years we have lost; love a memory;
excuse us if we are silent
as the dead are.

(John Male, “Not all of us”)

Perhaps the heightened intensity of poetry helps expression here. Those locked in prose may find a closer and more uncomfortable relationship with the reality they attempt to convey. Some sort of distance or observer status may help. The three books for review here are all by women, all involved in some way with war but all by nature of their gender non-combatants. Does this help or not? Is there a facility that is given by distance or does it dilute? And what formal literary structures have the authors employed to confront “the old lie”?

Trisha Stratford’s Blood Money: the incredible true story of Davis Morris and the tragedy of Somalia conveys its tone in its breathless subtitle. Stratford is a reporter on the television current affairs programme “60 Minutes” and her relationship with her material is at the outset that of a professional — a journalist — involved by the exciting nature of the subject and its potential sensationalism. As her narrative progresses one sees her stance shift towards an involvement and admiration for what she observes and a sense of the tragic muddle that is its context. But her narrative style is unable to keep pace with this shift. The more strongly she feels and the more earnestly she tries to convey the tragedy of the situation, the more leaden and cliched her prose becomes. Is this an important point in terms of the general problem, addressed above, as to how to convey the feel of war? Have we been conned — by the Romantics perhaps? — into believing that true feeling is all that is necessary for adequate expression, that anything honestly felt must by that very fact be accurately described? Perhaps the reverse is the case and only the spurious and the rhetorical can convey the real.

I am beginning to sound like Oscar Wilde. One of Stratford’s problems is her inability to impose order on the chaos and muddle that is her subject. This may be fine in terms of mirroring her experience but makes it hard for the reader to find a path through her narrative. Her evocation of the anarchy that is Somalia — both within and without the United Nations sphere of influence — is compellingly depressing but without any coherence that could give it meaning. As her book progresses, the subtext of a move from the professional distance of a journalist towards the subjectivity of a player can be faintly discerned. Amidst the venal, the fanatical and the inefficient, she presents David Morris, the New Zealander whose company won a huge catering contract from the United Nations forces in Somalia, as admirable in his effectiveness if flawed in the conventional sense of what constitutes “proper” behaviour. But it is still a shock to find on p227 that “by now my friendship with Robert McVicker [Morris’s right-hand man] had deepened into love”. So there was a narrative, there was meaning and coherence all along. There was a love story, the strongest genre of them all. Then why not make more of it?

As has Sue McCauley in her presentation of Escape from Bosnia: Aza’s Story. Stratford’s problem is one of identity. Beginning as an observer, she ends as a participant — fine in life, admirable even. Who admires relentless, hard-eyed objectivity? But it compromises the integrity of her narrative position. Who is telling us this story and how should that affect how we judge it?

Escape from Bosnia seems at first clearer about this — its subtitle insists it is “Aza’s story”. But the title page is less straightforward: “as told to Sue McCauley… original interviews: Judith Paviell”. So despite the subtitle, we have a highly structured narrative deriving from a process in which a number of “authors” have been involved, all the more so as “Aza’s story” is interwoven with that of her eventual husband, Brent. Although the identity and stance of Aza and Brent are made overt, I am not so certain about the other two. The acknowledgements say: “Judith Paviell’s gentle, perceptive questions encouraged us [Aza and Brent] to talk freely, filling tape after tape which Julie Smith [another “author”?] swiftly transcribed on to over 600 single-spaced pages, from which Sue McCauley then wrote the book you have today.” The published text is 225 pages and in two first-person narratives — Aza’s and Brent’s — rather than the question and answer of an interview. And it is implied that Aza’s English is limited, so possibly at some stage there was a translation made of her material.

I am not implying anything untoward about this process. But it is important in the way we read a book, the greatest strength of which is its implied authenticity, the personal voice and intimate detail that is so hard to find in the narratives of war. Escape from Bosnia is an account of warfare of a particularly brutal kind, the effect of which on innocent civilian populations shocked the world. It is also a moving love story. Aza tells of the destruction of her village by the Serbian forces and her escape aided by Brent, a New Zealander in the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

Literary forms — the love story and the escape narrative — control the material. The love story suggests that love is stronger than war, disaster or mortal danger. The escape narrative gives an action-packed resolution to the “star-cross’d lovers’ ” dilemma. Sue McCauley’s experience as a novelist is surely significant in the way the raw material is presented. But does this shaping get between us and reality? Literature — traditional literature, at any rate — is comfortable with order. Bosnia may be in ruins but Aza and Brent are happy ever after. The problem is the reverse of Stratford’s — too much control rather than too little.

There is experience and there is the story of that experience. To move the former into the latter we need language. To organise language we need form or genre — the love story, the adventure, the triumph or fall of the hero. At each step we get further from the experience and we impose our own meanings on it. What is the alternative, especially when we want to experience the unknown or unknowable?

Perhaps the most reliable genre when it comes to the transmission of actual events is the diary. An enlarged calendar or account book, it is the day-to-day record of occurrences. By definition, it has no overall shape or resolution, save that of a certain span of time — a year, a journey, a life. It can contain reflection or judgement, but is securely identified with the point of view of the author. It is their mind or their eyes.

Neva Clarke McKenna’s Angel in God’s Office is subtitled My Wartime Diaries, giving a promise of authenticity. But, as with Escape from Bosnia, there is a frame which I find confusing. On the back cover the publisher’s blurb says: “Until recently Neva Clarke McKenna was too embarrassed and afraid to tell the story of her experiences as a clerical secretary in Italy during World War II. Now her participation in the award-winning film War Stories has given her the courage to write her own personal account, revealing herself as the person she was in her wartime diaries.”

It is perhaps unfair to subject such blurbs to critical attention but I do not understand what this is saying about the genesis of the book. If it means that Clarke McKenna could not write about what she experienced at the time and that the film enabled her to, what does the final clause, “revealing herself as the person she was in her wartime diaries”, mean and what is the relationship of the book as it stands to “wartime diaries” — which, we have been told, were impossible to write?

In a foreword, Clarke McKenna compounds this confusion by saying: “I was afraid and embarrassed until recently to tell my story” — suggesting that War Stories provided that incentive — but then claims a wholly novelistic licence with her material: “An occasional episode too good to omit from this book has been attributed to other than the instigator.”

She makes no reference to contemporary diaries, although she seems from time to time to use letters. The text of Angel in God’s Office is generally written in the present, conveying an immediacy. But it is a novelist’s immediacy. Diaries are not written in the present. They are always a record of the past, albeit a recent past.

Angel in God’s Office is better described as a memoir and the references to diaries unfortunate. Memory is a somewhat uncertain commodity, especially over such a time span, with its own habits of rearrangements and reshaping. What Clarke McKenna writes of most convincingly is not the experience of war but of herself — her young self — innocent, enthusiastic and naive in equal proportions, perhaps, to those of the nation she came from. And this is possibly where the confused frame originates. At the centre of her story is an account of the experience of near rape and its aftermath, terrifyingly realistic in its evocation. It is this, I would guess, that she had no way of telling previously, without the sympathetic audience and appropriate language of a different age.

“In trench warfare,” writes George Orwell, “five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy.” Whether or not one agrees with this materialist view, it is certainly easier to write about war in such terms, just as, one suspects, participants grow weary of abstractions. Male, writing about Italy at the end of World War II, says

In this village the people
are tired of politics. Politics are the size
of the flour ration, the lifting of the mines
from the fields of the commune. Home
is where the old woman makes bean soup
over a twig fire. Home
is a troubled sleep on flagstones
under one blanket.

They are tired of politics, and love
died last year when the enemy
took labourers by force; love
died, and the leaves fell, and
all winter the boughs were black
and bare, shell splintered.

But already on the trees, green leaves
and in the vineyard
promise of next year’s red wine.

Jane Stafford lectures in English at Victoria University.

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