Friday, July 18, 2014

293. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The first Faulks' novel I read was Devil May Care, a story written to mark the centenary celebration of he creator of the James Bond character, Ian Fleming. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the book. Perhaps, I would have liked the movie better. This is due to the different demands I place on movies and books. I expect more intellectual discourse from books, and more action (though I hate war movies) from movies. Consequently, this book stayed on my bookshelf for almost three and half years. I was scared of opening it, until I ran-out of books to read.

This is one of those books you read and begin to wonder why you have not read it all this while, especially when it has been staring you in the face for years, begging you to pick it up and at least read the first line. According to the blurb '...Sebastian Faulks creates a work of fiction that is as tragic as A Farewell to Arms and as sensuous as The English Patient.' And having read both books I should more than agree to this statement. In fact, Faulks did deliver more heavy punches in both the tragedy and the love than Hemingway and Ondaatje.

As we celebrate the centenary of the most senseless war in history, WWI, it would be helpful to refresh our minds on the uselessness and stupidity of war. In this novel, Faulks shows - with brilliant prose, superb imagery, almost holding the reader's hand through the scenes of war - that the talk of war, the affection for war, the boastfulness of war, the imagery of war in the newspapers - the imagery that is painted to whip up sentiments and encourage young men to enlist, the euphoria that accompanies war - that one army is only going to whip the backside of another (as if there will be no consequences or retaliation), is far different from from the actual effects of war. That wars do not create heroes, it creates broken men and women, broken homes and hopes. That wars leave entire countries broken, families destroyed, deepens and widens poverty. 

Faulks patiently shows the absurdity and stupidity of war. How man descended into the lowest pits of his wickedness and became an animal; how the conscience and nerves of millions of soldiers were destroyed; how civilisation is just a thin layer of reason and could be crossed at any time in that rabid search for supremacy. In this novel, Faulks paints a picture of war different from the showboating we see on the screens, the ignorance of the young and the old who clamour for war and yet are ignorant of what it actually involves until their disillusionment disintegrates in the face of the absurdities, the insanity, then shell-shock they end up in mad-houses spending their last days in silence. If a novel can end the quest and zeal and love for senselessness and for war, Birdsong can. But unfortunately, no novel can. Man is such an animal. Events of today clearly show that a world of utopia will forever remain a dream.

To expose this stupidity and tragedy of war, Faulks contrasted the effects of the war on a young Englishman - Stephen Wraysford, who, having fallen in love and eloped with the wife (Isabelle Azaire, nee Fourmentier) of a French businessman (Rene Azaire) he was living with and the woman having deserted him when she found out she was pregnant, decided to join the army and become relevant in a world that had just neglected him. The story follows the effects of the war on the friends he gathered, his soul, and his love with this woman and his sister, whom he later met during one of the few vacations given to soldiers of war. The devastation of the war would continue even after the action of war had ended and the man, marrying the sister of his love, would lead a broken life for the rest of his life.

The story is generational and narrated back and forth between the present and the past. It focusses on Elizabeth, the grand-daughter of Stephen as she tries to discover who her grand-father was by decoding some of the messages he had recorded during his time in the war. The story, intelligently, shows the changes that had occurred post-WWI, with changes in the idea of family. Also, it brings out the contrast between the lives of women pre-WWI and post-WWI through Isabelle - who wanted things done differently but was impotent to do so; who could not decide on whom he wanted to marry and who could not even stay with the man she loved even after she mustered courage to elope with him; and Elizabeth - who got exactly what she wanted: establishing businesses, choosing to live with a man without marriage, and others.

This is an important book and deserves its place on the best books lists. 

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