Up the line to death, Edmund Bohan

March to the Sound of the Guns
Ray Grover
Longacre Press, $34.99,
ISBN 9781877460012

Ray Grover’s extremely well written novel March to the Sound of the Guns traces the harrowing years of the First World War, and the years immediately preceding it. It does so through the experiences of four young fictional New Zealanders who survive and of one older historical, controversial but posthumous hero who does not. The result is one of the most ambitious novels attempted here in recent times, being concerned with the great themes and events of the cataclysm that shaped the 20th century world and changed New Zealand and New Zealanders to an unequalled extent. Accordingly, it is in marked contrast to most of the more narrowly focused, often over-written and frequently agonisingly self-obsessed novels that continue to dominate our fiction. The publisher’s blurb compares it to Pat Barker’s memorable Regeneration trilogy and, for once, such a blurb is justified and the comparison appropriate. This is a tour de force and, overwhelmingly, a success.

The novel comes with an enthusiastic recommendation on its first page from no less a literary giant than Maurice Gee, and he, surely, is unlikely to bestow such tributes lightly. “March to the Sound of the Guns,” he writes, “is a triumphant amalgam of scholarship and story-telling, and is likely to be judged our best war novel yet.” I certainly agree with that; and I would dare to go even further. March to the Sound of the Guns is not only likely to be judged one of the best historical novels published in New Zealand so far, but among the better novels per se of recent years.

In form it is, on the surface, straightforward enough with five first-person and skilfully differentiated narrative voices, and Grover expertly interweaves their individual stories in a gripping saga that sweeps us along with them through their terrible and life-altering journeys from Gallipoli to the Western Front – and English hospitals – into the first anti-climactic and disillusioned year of the peace. Through these stories Grover also vividly brings to life the ideals and realities of an age and society utterly remote from our own – a time James Belich terms the era of “recolonisation”, which began in the 1880s after the antagonisms and conflicts between British and colonial governments of the 1850s and 1860s had subsided. New Zealand’s links with Britain were cherished and strengthened, and New Zealanders gloried in the notion that they were building the “better Britain of the South” and were proud to be regarded as the most loyal dominion in the entire Empire.

Grover’s Irish-Catholic Colonel Malone – Taranaki settler, lawyer, an outstanding and uncompromising territorial soldier fated to die heroically yet controversially as the scapegoat for the disaster at Chunuk Bair – is the voice of that most loyal generation. Fifty-five years old in 1914, he is old enough to have been the father of the other narrators, all 19-year-olds: Harry, committed Presbyterian from Wanganui: Frank, a Wellington teacher trainee and university student; Jim, a West Coast miner and aggressively committed socialist; and Nelle, the well-to-do doctor’s daughter, in rebellion against her socially ambitious mother and stranded in England by the outbreak of war. Each is a distinct personality, and Grover’s prose is admirable: taut and strong, powerful in its depiction of war’s carnage and destruction, but alive too with a distinctively dry wit. He also intersperses several of the later sections with his own brief and authoritative commentary on the progress of campaigns and the competence of generals.

Inevitably the question – is this novel or dramatised history? – has been posed by other reviewers. Although in a sense that is an exercise in splitting hairs and is, ultimately, irrelevant academic pedantry, it must be discussed because of the way the book has been presented, and, of course, because the question has been raised. And here lies my one serious gripe. There was absolutely no need for either the enthusiastic foreword from the wholly admirable Chris Pugsley – one of our most magisterial military historians – nor for the 11 pages of bibliography.

This is simply too good a novel to have any doubts cast upon its genre by such well-intentioned irrelevancies. An author’s own historical note should always be able to provide all the reader needs to know about a book’s scope and the thoroughness of the background research. It is, after all, an absolute given nowadays that solid historical research has to underlie all historical fiction, and with so many of the best novelists worldwide writing it superbly, it is very much the rule. It is no longer acceptable for novelists to play merry hell with history as that wonderful storyteller Alexander Dumas was able to do. That Grover has had a distinguished professional career as an archivist and is an assiduous researcher has to be merely incidental to any assessment of his ability as a novelist; and while we admire and appreciate his immense knowledge and his years of research, the crucial issue is how well he can use the fruits of all that work to create a worthwhile work of fiction.

Not every archivist or academic historian can become an historical novelist simply by virtue of being an assiduous researcher, of course. Many solemn academic historians and pure-minded literary academics, indeed, affect a half amused contempt for the genre. That is a pity because it clearly reveals their own lack of imagination or awareness of how many people actually have their ideas about the past shaped by the fiction they read so avidly; and that simple fact explains why it is so important that authors get their facts right. But always we must return to judging how far the novelist possesses a genuinely creative imagination, and can write, use and spin a narrative around historical events and in convincingly reliable historical settings. Grover passes any such test easily. He is undoubtedly a first-rate novelist.

One of the silliest obsessions of our iconic nationalist school of writers and literary critics of the post-war years who pontificated so relentlessly and, often, tiresomely, was their quest for “the great New Zealand novel”. I always found that absurd, just as I have always deplored a narrow and exclusive “Kiwi” nationalism – especially in literature. In fact, I dislike the very term “Kiwi”. (Why, and how on earth, have we been lumbered with the name of a reclusive bird that can’t fly, lives hidden in darkness and seems to show few signs of either personality or intelligence?) However, the fact that this book might well have warmed the nationalists’ hearts and stirred them to see it as a sign and portent does not in any way diminish my admiration for Grover’s achievement.

In 1983 his excellent historical novel Cork of War won the New Zealand Book Award for non-fiction. That decision has to be one of the more fatuous in the chronicles of our all too frequently fatuous book awards. One would hope that when next year’s awards are being considered the same preposterous error will not occur. One has to hope that in 2009 New Zealand book people are all far more sophisticated than they were 25 years ago. To reiterate: this is a novel, and it’s a very good one.

 

Edmund Bohan is a Christchurch-based historian, biographer and author of eight historical novels.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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