By Karl Marlantes
Corvus – £16.99
Countless books have been written on the Vietnam War, many of which I have read, including Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, David Lamb’s Vietnam Now, Bernard Edelman’s Dear America, Letters Home From Vietnam, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow Of War, Bob Greene’s Homecoming, Ronald H. Spector’s After Tet – The Bloodiest Year In Vietnam and the more recent Vietnam – The Definitive Oral History Told From All Sides by Christian G. Appy (along with many others). I’ve also visited the country and seen for myself, some of the horrific, ongoing destruction, wrought by the American forces.
So stumbling upon this relatively new book on the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes – himself a former marine who was awarded a number of medals including two Purple Hearts and two Navy Commendation Medals for Valor – was something of a pleasant and inspiring surprise. As I thought (almost) everything had already been written on the Vietnam War. But then, it’s all in the telling.
Thirty years in the making – which in itself is quite something – Matterhorn really is an exceptional book.
Exceptional because of not only what it says, but how’s it said, the language used, the premise from which it’s written and of course, the almost epizootic, drip-feed pacing throughout. It’s the closest any of us will ever get to partially understanding some of the mayhem and the madness involved in being an American foot soldier/grunt/marine during the Vietnam War. To be sure, it’s the closest any of us will ever come to perhaps knowing just what it must have been like: fighting an invisible enemy amid the squalid, humid chaos of the Vietnamese jungle – wrought with alarming disease and hardship, not to mention tigers and relentless bombardment.
Is it any wonder the book’s already a best seller in the States?
Both devastating and magnificent, it basically tells the story of one man’s tour of duty, replete with everything such a harrowing tour would entail. Right from the outset, Mallantes writes with a sort of grit induced social stanza, which sets the imagination alight with both horror and humanity: ‘’He put his forehead on his fists to keep his glasses clear of the ground and smelled the damp earth, feeling the cold edge of his helmet against his neck. He grabbed a handful of clay and squeezed it as hard as he could. He wanted to squeeze his fear into the clay so he could throw it away. A gust of wind hit his wet utility shirt, sending a cold shiver along his back. He started praying, asking God to stop the wind and the rain so he could just hear something. It was then that Williams reached out a hand in the dark and gently patted him on the back.’’
What’s conveyed in the above paragraph is everything one needs to know in so far as the humdrum tedium of benign suffering is concerned. And this is merely on page fifty-four of five hundred and sixty-six; a section of the book where we’re still getting to know the characters, the terrain, the anguish and the prime protagonist, Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas – who is only a few days into his 13-month tour of duty (and constantly counting).
Indeed, beyond the relative safety of the (aforementioned) perimeter wire, the twenty-one year old faces disease and starvation, mines and machine-gun fire, leeches and tigers, and, perhaps most frightening of all, a hidden enemy, along with his own conscience of dealing with that enemy:
‘’He thought of the jungle, already growing around him to cover the scars that had created. He thought of the tiger, killing to eat. Was that evil? And ants? The killed. No, the jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.
It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. His killing that day would not have been evil if the dead soldiers hadn’t been loved by mothers, sisters, friends, wives. Mellas understood that in destroying the fabric that linked those people, he had participated in evil, but this evil had hurt him as well. He also understood that his participation in evil, was a result of being human. Being human was the best ho could do. Without man there would be no evil. But there was also no good, nothing moral built over the world of fact. Humans were responsible for it all. He laughed at the cosmic joke, but he felt heartsick.’’
From a literary perspective, it’s simply sublime – even if the subject matter is rather harrowing and politically explosive. From blind faith to hierarchical duplicity, from racial antagonism within the ranks to blood drenched folly and sadness, Matterhorn covers, in fact, almost masters, all aspects of what was clearly, a terrible, superfluous and heartbreaking war.