Oct 26, 2012

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks

I picked this up in a hostel in Zurich despite its cheesy movie tie-in cover. I normally stay away from World War Whatever books, but this looked intriguing. I lucked out - "Birdsong" is a fantastic, engrossing novel about WWI.

Faulks includes an interesting introduction in which he describes his motivation and intentions with the book. His goal was to bring to light a largely glossed-over part of our past, one that is rarely addressed as it should be, often due to the extreme PTSD endured by the survivors. Faulks wanted to dig deep into the war, rather than continue the tradition of shying way from its horrors. He contrasts the graphic details of trench warfare with the graphic details of lust-fueled sexual passion. His point: sex and death are two sides of the same coin, both of which tend to be relegated to the liminal parts of our cultural and societal consciousness.

Why do we not remember? There is hardly anyone living who lived at that time, and certainly none (or extremely few) veterans. It is high time we address what happened to the men who fought and what it has done to humanity as a whole. Stephen, the protagonist, says he is curious to see how far man can be pushed, to what brutal, animal extremes he can go, before he can go no further, do no more. It is clear that limit has yet to be reached, not with the gas of WWI, nor the atom bomb of WWII, nor Agent Orange of Vietnam. As human civilization grows and develops, as we find new and ingenious ways to destroy each other, the bestial nature of humanity seems to find new depths to plumb. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in an effort to create a weapon so horrific that war would cease, the limits of human cruelty having been reached; he failed. When, Faulks asks, will it end? When will we learn? And how do we stop?

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