The Words of War
The writing of the two world wars, or of any war, often illustrate the double edged sword of humanity. War exemplifies the love, courage, compassion and loyalty of people while at the same time exposing our violence, cruelty, ignorance and isolation. War inspires wonderful writing.
This week I came across two examples. I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, set at the start of the Second World War and watched a film based on a true story from the First World War.
The Book Thief is set in Germany between 1938 – 1943. It is narrated by Death and tells the story of a young girl who sees her young brother die as she travels across Germany with her mother to be given into the care of a foster family. Her real parents were communists and as such were to be arrested. The story describes her pain, poverty, dreams, growing up in the small suburb of Munich, and learning to love its inhabitants. The heart of the book is its passion with words, books, love, loyalty, music.
The book begins with the death and burial of her little brother where Liesel steals a book from the grave digger – a manual of grave digging. It is her only connection with her birth family, her foster father teaches her to read and write. This love of reading leads to a series of book thefts, mainly from the Fascist mayor’s library. In 1939, her foster parents take in and harbour a Jew and the relationship between the prisoner and the girl blossoms through words, ideas, and creativity. They provide the refuge from the cruelty and terrors of Fascism and humanity.
Markus Zusak makes wonderful use of simile and metaphor and uses unusual but beautiful arrangements of words. Hair is like twigs but when washed turns to feathers. She has empty feet inside her shoes. The descriptions, in their strange apparel, defy normality, and in so doing make the story all the more visual and disturbing. The book is about the importance of expression, and shows how love, loyalty and compassion also serve as foot soldiers alongside the awful despair and futility of human warfare.
It was coincidental then, on the day that I finished The Book Thief, I watched a film, The Wipers Times. It is based on a true story and is about a satirical newspaper printed in the Ypres (pronounced Wipers by the soldiers) front line/trenches in WW1 by the Captain and soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. (It was written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman of Private Eye). What is produced is a satirical, witty, ironic, sharp, poignant paper reflecting the incompetence, cruelty, waste and despair of WW1. It is extraordinary that the British high command allowed its continued publication but it was realised that banning it would create out right mutiny. The film cleverly re-creates the articles and writing through the form of stage revue’s for the soldiers.
It is an excellent film and worth seeing. It exposed the horrors of WW1, and the amazing courage and stamina of the soldiers that fought and endured it – all for nothing. It was particularly interesting to learn of the flood of heartfelt poetry the editors received from the soldiers for inclusion. It was a constant source of friction: what to do with yearning and despairing poetry sent in by the men when the paper was intended to be a satirical lampoon of the War.
My learning for the week: words matter. But I knew that already. It was just so good to see it reinforced through good writing and good film.