The Absolutist – John Boyne

TAWhat a powerful book and what a powerful ending.

As a card-carrying pacifist, I am wary of all the hype this year surrounding the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War but if I could recommend a book about emotions, rather than history, then this is the one I’d recommend.

The narrator, like many (most?) men of his generation, saw the Great War as a ‘great adventure’: ‘We were training but it didn’t feel any different from practising foot­ball or rugby at school. Perhaps we believed that if we learned everything on offer to us, then sooner or later we would be sent out on to the pitch for a jolly good skirmish and when it was all over we’d shake hands and retire to the changing rooms for slices of orange and a hot shower’

On pacifism not being absolute (despite this book’s title): The truth is that, contrary to what the newspapers and the politicians would have you believe, not every soldier out there wanted to fight at all. Each of us fell at a different point on a spectrum from pacifism to unremitting sadism. Bloodthirsty fellows, saturated in some overzealous sense of patriotism, who would still be over there even now, killing Germans, if they were given the chance. Introspective chaps who did their duty, anything that was asked of them, but didn’t care for it at all.

And: ‘The truth, sir, is that I am tired of fighting and would prefer never to have to do so again’

‘But you won’t have to, said Mrs Bancroft, frown­ing. ‘The war is over now at last’

‘There’ll be another one along in a moment, I expect; I said, smiling at her. ‘There usually is’

War and death as some sort of heterosexual game like love and marriage: ‘A man should have children; he insisted. ‘We are put here to propagate the species.’

‘There are plenty of men who do their share of that, I said light-heartedly. ‘They make up for the rest of us shirkers.’

Reverend Bancroft frowned at this; I could tell that he wasn’t pleased by the flippancy of the remark. ‘Is that what you are, Mr Sadler?’ he asked me. ‘Are you a shirker?’

That nobody wanted to remember pacifists: ‘To be told that your own son, who has given his life for his country, cannot be represented on the stone because of his cowardice, because of his lack of patriotism, because of his betrayal? To hear those words spoken of a boy whom you have brought up, whom you have carried on your shoulders at foot­ball matches, whom you have fed and washed and educated? It’s monstrous, Mr Sadler, that’s what it is. Monstrous!

Of the terminal damage done to the Church of England by that war and the preaching that preceded it: ‘Since the war, I find that the young people are either moving closer to God or turning away from him entirely; he replied, shaking his head. ‘It’s con­fusing to me. Knowing how to guide them, I mean. I fear I’m becoming rather out of touch with age.’

‘Is it difficult being a priest?’ I asked.

‘Probably no more difficult than it is holding any other job; he said. ‘There are days when one feels one is doing good. And others when one feels that one is of no use to anyone whatsoever.

Conscientious objectors were treated cruelly. The bravest ones worked as stretcher bearers (I knew one who survived, a descendant of the Huguenots, an evangelical Christian, a sexist and strange man, I never realised his bravery until I read this.): They might send a team out later tonight to collect him, although they probably won’t. What a waste of bloody time, eh? Sending a stretcher-bearer to collect a stretcher-bearer. Then he most likely gets killed and we have to send another out to retrieve him. It’s an endless bloody cycle, isn’t it?’

Once I got into this book, I found it hard to leave it for other tasks and kept picking up to read a few more, then a few more pages.

You can almost hear the boots sucking in the mud. There is a vivid description of the conditions in the trenches: for my scalp is covered in lice, and my armpits, too, and my crotch. Everywhere that they can nest and breed. It repulsed me once but now I think nothing of it. I am a charitable host and we live peacefully together, them feeding off my filthy skin, me occasionally plucking them away and ending them between the pincer-nails of thumb and forefinger……My body is not my own any more: the lice have offered joint tenancy to the rats and vermin, for whom I am a chew-toy. I console myself by thinking that this is their natural terrain, after all, and I am the intruder. When I wake now to find a parasite nibbling at my upper body, its nose and whiskers twitching as it considers an attack, I no longer jump about and shout but merely brush it away…

Also a vivid description of nearly missing being killed but of being next to someone who didn’t: He holds his cigarette in the air as he does so, the red-flamed tip just visible above the parapet, and I gasp in horror.

‘Potter, your tab—’

He turns, notices what he’s doing, and I am im­mediately rendered blind by what feels like a bucket of hot mucus being chucked in my face. I spit and blink, retching against the side of the trench as I throw myself to the ground, wiping whatever filth this is away from my eyes, and look across to see Potter’s body lying at my feet, a great hole in his head from where the bullet entered, one eye com­pletely gone – somewhere on my person, I suspect ­the other hanging uselessly from its socket….. A bomb falls somewhere to my left and knocks me off my feet. I hit the ground and lie there for a moment, gasping, wondering whether that’s the end of me. Have my legs been blown away? My arms dis­membered? Are my intestines slipping out of my body and melting into the mud? But the seconds pass and I feel no pain. I press my hands to the soil and lift myself up.

And for the survivors – are they the lucky ones?: my friend lies on the ground, unmoving, his war over. Mine about to begin.

Most memorable, I am still haunted by it, is the war crime towards the end of the book. No spoilers but the scene was so poignant that I had to translate from the German:

The author is gay and homosexuality is dealt with in an understated way. There is talk of ‘lewd and vile acts’ and people are riddled with guilt. Thank God that things have moved on, at least in this country. However, now, as then parents disown their gat children: ‘Your parents have a son who is alive but whom they do not see. I have a son whom I wish to see but who is dead. What kind of people are they, anyway? Are they monsters?’…. The truth is, Tristan; he said as he guided me back 1 out on to the street, ‘you weren’t her brother any more than you are my son. This isn’t your family. You have no business here, not any more. It would be best for all of us if the Germans shoot you dead on sight’

The hint of betrayal, like Peter and Judas – ‘I barely knew him.’

The sergeant goes mad and sends men over the top to their deaths, just like we were told and like Michael Gove denied, as if he were there – arrogant younger man.

I found it odd that he thought that peeing against the outside wall of a church was sacrilege.

I had to translate the harrowing scene where a German boy is shot rather than being recognised as a prisoner of war: Bitte tut mir nichts = Please, I’m sorry, nothing (?)

Ich will nach Hause = I want home

Was habt ihr getan = What you have done

Mein Vater ist in London zur Schule gegangen = My father has gone to school in London

A reviewer pointed out the use of the modern idiom and said: I too found this frustrating and point out expressions completely out of context with the time ” … We were an item.”; ” Keep it together”. There are many others, one of them being the repeated use of the word ‘foxhole’ when Boyne means ‘dugout’. According to Merrion Webster (Encyclopaedia Britannica) the word foxhole wasn’t coined until 1919. If the ‘voice’ of the narrator and other characters, plus the contextual setting, is not believable then the credibility of the book begins to crumble.

However, the use of modern idiom pales beside the sloppy research. Sergeant Clayton seems to be in command of the whole regiment (Boyne means battalion as regiment is titular and in the first world war, a regiment could comprise as many as twenty battalions.The only officer referred to is General Fielding, whom Bancroft says he will approach regarding the murder of the German soldier. This just couldn’t happen. There are at least nine ranks between sergeant and the lowest rank of general and complaints are only forwarded initially to the next rank up. Where was the company commander ( a captain or major) and the lieutenants. Also, when Saddler is sent back for medical treatment. Sergeant Clayton overrules the doctor’s decision concluding with the doctor saying to Clayton “Understood, Sir.” All army doctors are officers who wouldn’t defer to a mere sergeant and would never call a lower rank ‘Sir’. Besides which, once the casualty has reached the aid station, he is under the medical officer’s command. I assume that, once again, Mr. Boyne has his wires crossed and what he means is not doctor but medical orderly (which he refers to as medics; another anomaly within his terminology) The use of ‘Sir’ comes up many times when all the privates call Sergeant Clayton and his corporals, ‘Sir’. this is quite ludicrous. (Sir’ is an officer of 2nd Lieutenant upwards – though the Regimental Sergeant Major is often referred to respectfully as ‘Sir’ by ranks beneath him)

I had been losing patience with this book long before I got to Bancroft’s execution. A ‘kangaroo court’ is referred to briefly but the whole rigmarole, up to and including the execution, is handled by Clayton again. This is impossible. all executions during the first world war were preceded on the basis of trial by via courts martial and the court was always made up of senior officers. Ultimately the commander in chief (at the time of the book’s supposed setting, Field Marshal Haig) had to approve the findings of the courts if the verdict was death by firing squad.

TA2The firing squad itself was completely unbelievable. ‘I need one more’ (for the firing squad) says Clayton. ‘I can’t sir’ says (Corporal) Wells ‘It has to be an enlisted man.’ What does Boyne believe that Wells is? A corporal is an enlisted man. Also, a firing squad is chosen by higher authority and Clayton,the omnipotent sergeant, having seemingly selected his own firing squad (deciding six is enough for a squad as opposed to the usual twelve), arbitrarily saying ‘I need one more’. This is risible. Sadler volunteers and Bancroft whips away his blindfold at the last to see Tristan Sadler. How Bancroft managed to perform this action, when he would be trussed up tighter than a Christmas turkey and bound to an execution post, staggers belief.

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