Very few books can make everything around you irrelevant except the words that you read. This for me, is one of them.
I sincerely believe that this is one of the most important books of our times and the surprising thing is that so few people seem to have heard of it, let alone read it. I believe that this book tells us more about the tragedies of the last century in particular and of the way we live in general. I also believe that this book is a terrifying reminder of all that we keep conveniently forgetting.
The general perception among the lay reader is that the best and most important anti-war novel to come out of world war I is “All quiet on the western front” by Erich Maria Remarque. I believed that until I read this. It has a terrifying and a savage power that almost gets you by the throat at times, when its words probe deep into the reader’s mind and psychology. Its words tear at you and embed themselves deep and wakes you up completely from whatever sort of slumber you have been in.
This book is about Joe Bonham, who is the narrator of this novel. A foot soldier in World War I, he wakes up in a hospital bed and realizes that he is deaf. He is miserable but then realizes that he could have been worse. Slowly however, he begins to realize, to his terror, that he has become a living dead (which becomes for him an unique platform to have his ‘say’). He has not only lost his hearing ability, he has lost his arms, his legs, and his face has become a hole without a nose, mouth, eyes – just a forehead. An impossible case, as he himself admits but which has become true nevertheless…
And therein begins the story. Completely helpless and unable to communicate at all to the outside world, Joe begins to try and resurrect himself, try and find ways to cope. For example, he is unable to do something that we are take as an implicit – keep track of time, which he realizes is the backbone of keeping one’s sanity. After multiple failed attempts, he finally dawns upon an ingenious solution to keep time – with the only sense he has left, through his skin.
As he begins to create his own universe, we also begin to discover Joe, as we go along with him as he remembers the events of his short life – his father, mother, siblings, friends and some of the women in his life especially Kareen – the woman he loved and whom he left behind when he went to fight the great war. Each part and member of his life is remembered in different episodes and across time – from his childhood to late adolescent. We go through his ups and downs as he grapples with his world just like anyone else – with heartbreaks, joys, sorrows and finding love. Which brings into contrast the cruelty with which his life was brought to a crashing halt – all the more cruel since due to his condition, he could not be identified and so it was unlikely that his family, friends or Kareen ever knew he was alive.
While he thinks about his life, he also begins to think (which by his own admission is all that he can do really) and slowly develops a philosophy (which he wants, at the end, unsuccessfully, to share with the world) about what is most important to an individual (the part which more than anything makes it an important anti-war book). He also becomes aware of his unique position – he is one who has, in many ways, come back from the dead and he realizes that he can tell the world a thing or two of truth that no-one can tell.
The book ends with him making a superhuman effort in coming up with a way in which he can communicate to the outside world only to be thwarted in his attempt to get his message across to the world (and what he wants to say to the world makes for some chilling reading and for me, was the best part of the book). He is thwarted, he realizes, by a world that is afraid of what he can say and the truth of what he wants to say. Its a world that needs to lie for things to go on….
The book is extraordinary in that it combines the personal and political beautifully. The passages about his life are poignant, especially his parting with Kareen and when he remembers the rituals at home at Christmas. The passages about his developing philosophy is one of the most stirring cries for sanity that I have read in a long long time.
The whole book hammers through you as you read it. And when you have read it through, the book’s words simmer long after you have closed the covers. For me, it is one of the rare category of books that change a part of your life’s philosophy and something that becomes a part of you; one of those books whose words come back to you when you are doing something completely different…