War Literature as a Medium of Separation, Unity and History

The idea that war literature – insofar as the genre truly exists – can contain powerful invocations of separation and unification is largely correct, though it is rather general. Tales of separation and unification are often part of war literature, but they are frequently a secondary or tertiary theme, serving as a subplot or an auxiliary. In The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini which has achieved tremendous prominence among general readers and those interested in contemporary Afghanistan, the unification of Amir – the protagonist – and Sohrab (a boy, the son of Amir’s childhood friend and half-brother Hassan, whom he has to rescue in order to achieve redemption) is prefaced with, and set within the context of, the latter’s being sexually abused. This situation is a demonstration of the power of war to create a climate which contains the destruction of morality and the exploitation of the weak. Effective war literature is acute in observation, truthful in judgement, and imparts, as Hosseini himself wrote in an article for Time, some moral message or sensation. The theme of unity and separation can conform to all of these elements; but it is frequently overshadowed by other narrative elements, which collectively serve to drive works of war literature and give the genre its moral force.

It could be argued that separation and unification are essential themes of war literature, as they both offer – apart or together – a sense of both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Friends losing touch, as Amir and Hassan do in The Kite Runner, is not an unheard of phenomenon. The extraordinary aspects of the story in this case are the manner in which they separate and the place where the separation occurs. Hosseini paints Hassan’s false confession as a ‘final sacrifice’, that – in grandiose language common to writing about war, which evokes the selflessness of those who put others before themselves in a time of conflict and often pay the price with their lives – deepens the reader’s sympathy with Hassan. When Baba’s car drives away, taking Hassan and his father away, the boy is ‘slumped in the backseat’, a shattered figure, but one who has taken a profoundly moral course of action. This makes the letter Hassan sends to Amir all the more extraordinary. It makes use of his newfound literacy, and Hosseini has it read less like a tentative re-establishing of contact than a declaration of his safety and happiness (albeit a temporary one; this knowledge deepens the reader’s sense that in Afghanistan, the sort of happy endings which appear in the films Hassan and Amir watch together at the novel’s beginning are difficult to live up to in real life).

This boldness can be related to other works of literature which deal with war. This can be seen in the declarative frankness of Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961”, for example, which – though it does not give its characters the same agency as Hosseini does his (they are trapped by events, and the ominous nuclear threat, at all times) – galvanises the reader toward the sort of moral message to which Hosseini himself aspires. The blunt, declarative aspect of the way Lowell states that ‘the end drifts nearer’ – and his description of the whole scene as ‘radiant with terror’ (which includes an almost perversely playful resemblance to the words radium and radioactive) – impart a moral force on the work which, when added to the unifying phrase ‘we are like a lot of wild / spiders crying together’, gives the reader an emotive sense of the destructive power of war. The family described – and indeed the whole nation – are unified in fear and the prospect of death. Like Hosseini’s characters, who are either condemned to an Afghanistan fast falling under the influence of the theocratic, fascistic Taliban or forced to flee, theirs is a fate which many find difficult to escape.

The unity created by Amir’s rescue of Sohrab, therefore, comes as a vital break with the tragic fates suffered by many; as Rahim Khan, a friend of Amir’s family and an especially important figure in the morality of the novel, surmises, the rescue of the boy is ‘a way to be good again’. It is a chance at redemption; and this portrayal is a way of doing that. The whole episode lends Amir a kind of reluctant hero status, compelling him to act in the common good and for his own moral development. There is a great sense of hope in this portrayal, as Hosseini engenders within the reader a powerful appreciation for the good Amir ought (and is about) to do. And this eventuality is especially satisfying – and perhaps even unlikely – when one considers the beginning of the novel, in which the character of Amir is seen as little more than a spiteful failure, one who bullies his social inferiors and disappoints his father in every endeavour. It is only after he loses a friend and witnesses many horrors that Amir is granted the chance to atone for his mistake. It is perhaps an example of overt moralism – and this tendency can often undermine any hope of historical and naturalistic realism an author wishes to create – but the sentiment created in sum is sufficiently strong (and sufficiently satisfying) to justify this particular narrative trick.

It could, after all, also be argued that there cannot be unity without the initial separation; the latter leads to – and provides the thematic payoff for – the former. In The Kite Runner, the separation depicted is that between Amir and Hassan, and it is supplemented and magnified by the moral trauma Amir undergoes through his failure to rescue Hassan from rape; this is demonstrated by the frank declarative ‘that was the night I became an insomniac’, which Hosseini has Amir relate after he realises the enormity of his moral error, and which – with its connotations of being unable to rest while wracked with guilt and worry – effectively demonstrates the moral stakes of this coming apart. When Amir hears from Rahim Khan that he must rescue Sohrab, he is initially reluctant; but he is won over by the notion that ‘there is a way to be good again’, which fills this activity with the promise of redemption and atonement. When Amir sees Sohrab for the first time in a photograph, the resemblance between Hassan’s son and he is considered ‘Disorienting.’ This short, minor sentence gives the impression of a sharp, striking observation, one which makes the reader aware of how strongly this thought occurs to Amir; it is not just a chance for making right the wrongs he had committed, the subtext reads – it is also a kind of reunification with his old friend. This adds a powerful extra element to the action of the novel, as Amir’s emotional growth is tied intrinsically to rescuing the doppelganger of his half-brother and former servant.

Some critics – such as the reviewers for The Observer and Slate – have considered this to be one of too many coincidences included for the sake of narrative circularity; they foreshadow and pre-empt the action of the novel, and do so in order to make an solidify the aforementioned moral point Hosseini wishes to include. But in this case the circularity is an effective technique, as it allows Amir both to rescue an individual in great danger and do right by someone who is closely related to and closely resembles Hassan; the fact that the latter action could not have happened without Amir’s own cruelty at first – for Hassan would have escaped to with Amir and Baba if they still lived together – furthers this point; both add a great sense of moral force and urgency to the novel, affording the themes of separation and unification a central part in the latter half of the book and its moral firmament.

In Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961”, the poet does not allow for the moral constructions of Hosseini’s novel to emerge. Rather, the father and his family are powerless before the awesome destructive potential of nuclear arms, and there is little they can do to avert it; they have, in his revealing and darkly ironic phrase, ‘talked [their] extinction to death’. There is no potential for the moral climaxes of unity and separation, either, as – unlike in the novel, where Amir is taken to be Sohrab’s father and is able to protect him in kind – Lowell’s depressing construction has it that ‘A father’s no shield / For his child’. This poem, which takes for its moral foundation the fear and boredom of living under the threat of Cold War nuclear annihilation, is more potent for having the imagined characters stationary and unable to protect each other. It gives the reader an even stronger sensation of the awfulness of the bomb and the world it creates. Lowell himself says that ‘I swim like a minnow / By my studio window’. Which has a sense of both his individual smallness and weakness and powerlessness, and the implied community who share this fate; minnows swim in schools and look to safety in numbers. Yet this is no defence when contemplating nuclear war. Rather than the bold, clear-cut and moral universe described by Hosseini, where good and evil ultimately come into conflict over Sohrab, utilising the theme in the statement, Lowell’s universe is greyer and more complex, departing from the fairy tale ethics some ascribe to Hosseini. Furthermore, unlike Amir, who leaves Afghanistan to go to Pakistan and then America before making the return journey, there is no dynamism or circularity in Lowell’s offering; instead it is a demonstration of the horrors of stasis – even the clocks are ‘bland’ and ‘ambassadorial’ – in a fearful world.

The First World War gave rise to an outpouring of poetry, and much of it dealt with the theme of unity and separation. Siegfried Sassoon, in his work “The General”, suggests a unity in death for his demotically-named soldiers Harry and Jack; the general ‘did for them both with his plan of attack’. This euphemistic language, which masks the real horror of war – and replaced the more violent ‘murdered them both’ contained within the first draft – adds to the sensation created by their common names of unity in the mind of the reader. That they died together, to some intents, has two differing effects on the work: first, it provides some superficial comfort in unity – though they died, they did so together; and second, it deepens the tragedy by increasing its scale. This picture is a complex one, much like both war itself and the creation of literature to chronicle it. Old Romantic ideas of conflict – as seen in the works of Henry Newbolt and Rupert Brooke – saw death and comradeship as glorious and noble; this rosy picture is not included in Sassoon’s assessment.

While Sassoon’s own sentiments are profoundly against the supposed incompetence of the upper echelons of the military, this picture contains elements of the positive, saturated by the themes in the title. Another work of First World War poetry to deal with this theme is “Futility” by Wilfred Owen, which is built upon the premise of a soldier attempting to revive his comrade. Its tone is initially Romantic and optimistic, but that is cut short by the increasing realisation of the pointlessness of his efforts, after which even the image of a ‘kind of sun’ is transfigured into ‘fatuous sunbeams’. The trauma Owen’s character (likely himself) undergoes is closely built upon a shared comradeship and alliance, very much like that portrayed in Sassoon’s poem. Like that work, too, there is no happy ending, one which might have showcased the pleasing moral circularity of Hosseini’s work. This is a collectively unsettling picture, one which was supplemented for a contemporary reader by the widespread devastation of that war and increased for a more modern reader by the commonly held perception – reinforced with works like those of Sassoon and Owen – of the First World War as a blood soaked folly. This diminishes greatly the possibility of superficial comfort in the unity of the soldiers, and emphasises only the scale of tragedy, which predominates in our current popular understanding of the conflict. A Marxist critic might argue that, since both Sassoon and Owen were upper class officers, no matter how much they attempted to sympathise with the trials of their men, their worlds were too difficult for them effectively to chronicle the lot of the working man.

Similarly, the same Marxist critic would likely see a great deal to appreciate in Lowell’s work. A believer in historical materialism – and the idea that historical events are shaped not by individuals but by great tides of history and historical forces – would appreciate the extent to which the individuals in “Fall 1961” are powerless to affect their own situation: ‘the chafe and jar / or nuclear war’ persists ‘all Autumn’, and seemingly without respite. The use of ‘chafe’ and ‘jar’ create a sense of friction – international as well as local – and add to a sense that the world was greatly divided in the era Lowell chronicled. This bi-polar world, perhaps the epitome of a divided, separated humanity, is ably depicted in this work, just as a sense of division – in this case by class – is powerfully stressed in “The General”, where the general can only be found ‘on the way to the line’. A Marxist critic would see that description, at least, as an accurate one, as it emphasises the sort of class separations with which their school of thought identifies. Returning to “Fall 1961”, by contrast, a more modern reader, with the knowledge that the world did not go to war – of a conventional or nuclear type – in the 1960s or since, and that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, would find it harder to empathise with the sensations described in Lowell’s work. The Cold War is over and, with the same circularity which gives Hosseini’s novel its impetus, the horrors described in Lowell’s work are rather further from view now than before. This element of his poem does not contain a statement of separation of unity; rather, it is a wider social comment. It demonstrates, perhaps unlike Sassoon’s writing, that the sensations associated with separation and unity are not entirely necessary in order to write compelling war literature, and that – as I have stated above – they can often serve as effectively secondary themes, appearing infrequently and holding much less significance than other themes and ideas and notions.

While it is clear that the themes established at the outset are important and can play their part in the formulation of accurate, emotive war literature, they are not entirely necessary for its creation. Even in The Kite Runner, the sense of reunification is powerful but to some degree transient, as it is simply a mechanism by which the larger theme of redemption can be instituted. “Fall 1961” and “The General” may seem more seriously to contain the aforementioned themes, but they too are driven by other aspects: for Sassoon the ‘ignorant swine’ he perceived to be running the war, and for Lowell the impotence of the citizenry in the face of nuclear extirpation. “Futility”, on the other hand, can only be understood on a single plane as a tale of separation. Therefore, it can be seen that war literature can contain a great deal of separation and unity, but the two are not an essential requirement, and even when they are included, these elements can be secondary to more pertinent themes: simply an auxiliary to the wider moral message of the works.

On the question of whether war literature can serve a historical use – literature as history, or perhaps the other way around – the question is a little more complex. The historical novel is a staple of the bestseller lists, and while it is fashionable in some circles to decry their lack of historicity – why is everyone in the past either a shining knight in armour or an Amazonian princess? – they have, to paraphrase Irwin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, achieved some of the permanence of art simply by persisting – and some of the permanence of history, too.

When Helen Castor decided to effect a rather dramatic change in career – a move from writing ‘straight’ academic history to more popular stuff – her reasons were clear. She wanted to reach more people; and if that is one’s intention, one must actually write things people want to read. And what do people actually read? Historical fiction and popular history; that was the answer. (A cynic would suggest that one of the biggest incentives to motivate a writer to ‘reach more people’ has something to do with increased earning power, but it seems important to take serious figures like Castor at their word.)

As to how far these works of literature can serve as true testament to historical happenings, it is obvious that any judgement can only be dangerously imprecise. After all, the beauty of literature – of art in general – is in sublime subjectivity, in affecting individuals differently depending on their preconceptions, worldviews, and so on. If these works of non-non-fiction (as I sometimes see them) arouse within a reader either a strong sense of period and place or an urge to research, read and study history, they will have done their job in a historical sense. But these works are intended to be more than that – just as they are intended to be more than a simply told story or a simple observation, a variation on a single theme. They are a good deal more complex than that, and it seems to me that it is about time they are treated as such.

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