Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Book Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Magistrate, protagonist of JM Coetzee’s finest novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, is one of my favourite characters in literature. Idealistic, yet in an untested sort of way, solitary and in search of a peaceful, easy life, he reminds me a little bit of me. He is a flawed character forced by circumstance into an act of quixotic rebellion for which he pays a high price. But it is his idealism that I return to time and time again. Early on, almost guiltily and without embellishment or drama, he offers a statement that increasingly resonates with me. “I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.”

Many in this world believe in peace as an ultimate aim. But peace at any price? Peace is a means as well as an end? Peace if it costs you everything? It is this idea, that physical force is never in our long term interests, either as individuals or humanity as a whole, that forms the backdrop of John Boyne’s seventh novel, The Absolutist. It is an emotionally caustic and visceral exploration of the extreme actions to which war drives people, and an intimate portrayal of the lives these actions leave behind.

The novel opens as Tristan Sadler, damaged by war and with a guilty secret gnawing away at him, travels from London to Norwich to return some letters to Marian Bancroft, the sister of one of the men he fought alongside in the trenches. Will was Tristan’s best friend, but in 1917 he laid down his guns and declared himself an Absolutist – one not willing to play any part in the war effort -, and was shot as a deserter. As Tristan and Marian walk the streets of Norwich, seeking solace and understanding in each other, they discuss post-war England, their struggles, and the opportunities beginning to appear. Interspersed with this narrative, we relive Tristan’s experiences of the war, first at Aldershot Military Barracks, then the trenches of Northern France. The plot alternates between these two times, from one emotionally taut situation to another, with little to break the sombre mood.

That said, the narrative is led by dialogue and this, combined with the first person confessional style makes for a smooth read. There is an old fashioned feel to the formal language the characters use, and like a Beryl Bainbridge novel, one feels carried along with what happens even while not quite understanding how one has been so ensnared. It is well paced and there is always a sense of moving forward, of characters and situations unraveling towards something significant.

Tristan is a complex and sympathetic narrator: kicked out and ostracised by his father following an unfortunate incident aged sixteen, he joins the army a year later, already hardened by disappointments of life, and moves through the war as though in a daze, unable to believe his life is meant for anything else. This is starkly at odds with Will who, despite being the same age, seems younger, more innocent, and who responds with passion and fury to every situation. He’s a pacifist but a fighter for it, Tristan can’t see anything worth fighting for, except maybe that innate desire to preserve one’s own life. As Will says at one point: the irony is “that I am to be short as a coward while you get to live as one.”

The fact is, neither is a coward. One shows bravery and conviction of belief, the other at times seems brave simply to have got that far in life. Tristan’s homosexuality is a key theme, and one feels the difficulties that this causes Tristan, the sidelining effect it has on him. The Absolutist is certainly not the first book to feature homosexuality between serving soldiers, though it is more understated here than in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Tristan’s narrative cuts away before intercourse takes place, reflecting perhaps the shame that society has nurtured in him over his young life. It is hard not to be moved by Tristan’s struggles; he is a tragic character, but one who faces his struggles with a stiff upper lip.

It would be easy to accuse John Boyne of wearing his heart too proudly on his sleeve, or that his direct approach to the subject is a little in your face. Personally I found this clarity of purpose refreshing and made it a rewarding read. The debate around pacifism is handled capably, with both sides explored and no sense of preaching one view or the other. There is a sense that perhaps his presentation of war adds little to our understanding thereof, but then it is difficult to be fresh on such a well explored subject. And because it is so intimately told, The Absolutist enables the reader to experience the war and post-war through one character’s eyes, and do so in an embodied way.

Many writers have meditated on the collision between conscientious individuals and monolithic regimes. Kafka did it in The Trial, Camus in The Outsider, Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley in Brave New World, and the list goes on and on. If there is an identifiable twentieth century literary concern then it is probably this. However, despite there being a period in the aftermath of the industrial slaughter of World War One, where pacifism was widely popular, relatively little has been written about the conflict between individual conscience and conscription. Few records exist of conscripted soldiers turned conscientious objectors or Absolutists, few novels have featured them. Yet their treatment – usually execution as deserters – remains one of the many unobserved tragedies of the Great War. Names are still not permitted on memorials of the War dead, for instance. In this way The Absolutist both stands alongside the greats of twentieth century literature, and opens up another dimension to their concerns.

I was always likely to respond favourably to The Absolutist. I am incontinently idealistic when it comes to pacifism –I believe it above all else – and the Norwich setting is prominent and recognisable to all who know the city. Among the places we visit are Tombland, the Cathedral, Prince of Wales Road, Timber Hill, and The Murderers pub. The ubiquitous Norwich conversation about the insufferable frustrations of the London to Norwich train makes an appearance too. Interestingly though, these familiar details also allow the partial Norwich setting to be incidental, a mere backdrop to the dramatic and horrific events in the trenches where themes of loyalty, bravery and friendship dominate and the daily battles are against lice, rats and liquid mud as much as the German trenches.

The Absolutist is a tender and engaging novel. It is fraught with tension and tragedy but told in such a clear voice that it is a pleasurable read, and one that will remain with readers for a long time.

The Absolutist was published by Doubleday in May 2011. ISBN: 978035616041


Louise said...

Looks fantastic - must take a look. I loved Boy in the Striped Pyjamas so looking forward to a book more aimed at adults which may be a little meatier.

Unknown said...

There are points of similarity between The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Absolutist, Louise. If you liked one, I think you'll like the other. It is certainly more meaty, though manages to remain a not too challenging read.