What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"I guess there are times when war doesn't exactly make sense"

The American soldiers stationed in a remote outpost in Afghanistan in this excellent novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya don't want to become "just another failed tribe", and fall victim to the region's apparently endless and ugly battles. Some want to make a difference in the lives of the region's inhabitants; others have a different mission, seeking revenge for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or combating an ideology they despise, even if they don't understand the difference between someone who wears a black turban because he's Taliban and someone who wears it by right of descent from the prophet Mohammed. And then there are a handful who can only think of getting home alive. Regardless of their widely-varying wishes and hopes, they are all stranded together in this isolated locale when a serious attempt to overrun them is made and only barely repulsed. A few days later, a young woman -- or, at least, a figure in a burkha -- appears with a cart. Nizam, like Antigone before her in the classic Greek tragedy, has come to claim the body of her brother, who led the raid. But the soldiers have already told their headquarters that they have the body of a Taliban leader (as they believe) and as soon as dust storms clear, helicopters will come to carry the corpse off for public display by the new Afghan regime. But until then, the woman and the soldiers are trapped, one on the outside of the razor wire protecting the camp, and the others on the inside.

The author does an excellent job of capturing the ensuing tension between the men and Nizam, and among the men themselves, in this claustrophobic environment. Nizam's arrivals has caused all certainties to evaporate: whereas the men could fight together to repel armed invaders, she disarms them, literally and rhetorically. Nizam is "outside the template", as the first sergeant remarks to the captain, and her presence in the midst of what had been a battle zone leads to predictable yet unanswerable questions -- why are we here? who are the good guys? what is justice?

The nature of these questions may be predictable enough, but it's Roy-Bhattacharya's ability to get under the skin of the characters that is most striking. We understand and grieve for the first lieutenant's lost idealism -- he has read and acted in Antigone, and now lives out a classical Greek tragedy of his own. There is an angry young Afghan interpreter, who is among the most insistent that Nizam may be a man under the burkha, and almost certainly is a Taliban "plant", and who also insists on casting the Americans in the role of defender of his country's citizens and their rights -- to their own discomfort. As one enlisted man remarks, dryly, he's only doing his job.

As the standoff drags on -- Nizam refuses to leave; the soldiers refuse to relinquish the (now decomposing) body of her brother -- the tension grows and misunderstandings multiply. We see the chain of events through a series of narratives, with Nizam's coming first in that sequence -- and only gradually do we recognize the extent to which those misunderstandings are merely small-scale versions of the larger ones between nations and peoples. For instance, the lights that Nizam believes are designed to keep her from sleeping at night turn out to have a far more compassionate purpose, as we discover when the anecdote is told from someone else's perspective. Ultimately, it's impossible not to feel empathy for everyone, from the rigid officer with a limited imagination, to the veteran sergeant, who has seen it all and is exhausted by the emotional damage done by war. Roy-Bhattacharya has succeeded in making Greek tragedy contemporary -- and reminding his readers that the very nature of tragedy is human, and not specific to any era, part of the world, or nationality.

I confess I cried when I finished this novel -- it doesn't happen often, but what affected me was the fact that the narrative itself was so unsentimental, even as it dealt with emotional issues ranging from death and betrayal to comradeship and despair. This isn't an "anti-war" novel, any more than it is a "pro-war" one; rather, it's the story of the people who are caught up in any war and how they try to resolve the conflict that that always exists between their role as warriors and their nature as human beings. If you have read Sebastian Junger's excellent chronicle of life in the forward battlefield posts in WAR, this would be a great fictional counterpoint. 4.4 stars; definitely recommended. (As a side note, I also relished the author's previous novel, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, which adopted a similar technique, recounting a central narrative by using several narrators and points of view. If that approach annoys you, you'll probably want to avoid both novels, but in my opinion, Roy-Bhattacharya does a great job keeping the narrative tightly focused in both books and particularly in this one.)

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