When I was a kid, I loved playing at fighting. I had army men, I played assassin and hunter and capture the flag. But actual violence always terrified me--not in the way it does my mother (she can't stand the thought of it)--but because of what it did to me, how it got my blood boiling, and how, if I thought I was in the right, I would lash out at bullies or whoever. There was a part of me that thought this violence was justified, and something about that false righteousness burned in my gut like glory.
And THAT is the thing that terrifies me the most.
Two recent book deal with that horrible aspect of war: Deogratias by J.P. Stassen (translated by Alexis Siegel) and The Road of Bones by Anne Fine.
I've written about The Road of Bones before, specifically it's cover. What a great book. This account of Yuri, a young man attempting to survive a Stalinist-esque regime, aptly shows the damage to an entire society a fanatical and authoritarian regime can do. Yuri's struggle is not that of a character against other characters, but a character against political and social structures as monumental and inescabable as to make his fight to survive as primal as any man vs. nature tale.
Early in the book, Yuri, a young man of twelve or thirteen, makes a simple mistake. And, though Yuri's offense is slight, he knows the officers will come for him. So he sets off to escape, with some successes and some failures. Along the way, we get a survey of how the oppressive government has transformed the very hearts and souls f the people. And, ultimately, how even though Yuri survives terrible, terrible things, his heart, his soul, remain in jeopardy. Not for what people have done to him, but for what the basic act of surviving has done to his spirit.
In Deogratias, J.P. Stassen uses the graphic novel form to explore recent events in Rwanda. Like Fine, Stassen is interested in getting under the skin of what long term violence can do to the psyche of a people. Deogratias, the Hutu boy at the center of the book, has survived horrendous genocide, but at what cost? He is mocked and derided by everyone, he wrestles with demons of memory and guilt, and has been driven half insane by what he has gone through.
Deogratias is a much more violent, brutal and complex book, but it's core vision is similar to that of Fine's book: How does war--not battles, but long term, socially and culturally devestating war--affect a people. Not soldiers, not captains, not politicians, but the everyday people hoping to simply work and live an ordinary life?
Most especially, how does war like this affect young men with simple hopes and dreams, like going to school, meeting a girl, nothing more than simple things?
Seen through the eyes of these two excellent books, the answer is that it shrinks the spirit and warps the soul.
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