War and books: a historic literary view of military conflict. A double review by Dominic Stevenson

August 25, 2013 Book Reviews

 

 

War is terrible, on both sides; always. If our god is with us and their god is with them then it can only lead to a bloody stalemate.

Either that or the realisation that there isn’t a god comes to the fore. Each side plays the numbers game and the country with the most soldiers left wins.

 

All Quiet on the Western Front

bErich Maria Remarque

Ullstein A G 1928

Ballantine books 1982

 

All Quiet on the Western Front is a dark, powerful depiction of the life of a German soldier and his comrades on the front line during World War One. Using the simplest of language to evoke the most sinister of imagery, Remarque delivers us from comfort to the trenches and back, never shying away from the story he needs to tell.

Remarque struggled to find a publisher when he finished the book in 1927 and I am not surprised. Anti-German sentiment was at its height throughout much of Europe and America. Germany itself did not want to dwell on defeat as in the background Hitler and his Nazi party were slowly gaining control.

In the face of what must have seemed like the entire world wanting to wish the books existence away, Remarque bravely talked of hardship and the devastating futures that were waiting, and by the time of its publication these conditions already existed for his fellow soldiers.

The book, along with his other works, were publicly burned by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1933. At this point Remarque exiled himself to Switzerland until after the Second World War. During his absence, his sister was beheaded by the German authorities for being perceived to undermine morality.

All Quiet on the Western Front is not simply an account of war, it is anti-war and pro-human, despite its more graphic and gruesome elements. More so it is 295 pages of insight into the human psyche that leaves you aching and weeping for the sanctity of humanity.

 

 

Burmese Days

by George Orwell

(1934)  ( Harcourt Books 1962)

Harcourt Books

 

Burmese Days pulls no punches as a critical analysis of life in colonial Burma. Having been stationed in the country as a member of the Indian Imperial Police Orwell uses this book to expose the injustices he saw and it was initially seen as so contentious, it was released in America a year before it saw print in the UK.

The book follows John Flory, a timber merchant a man who is overwhelmingly more tolerant than the others he encounters on his journey juggling social etiquette with social justice in 1920’s Burma. Orwell’s mastery of language and his ability to be brutal and explicit while still making sensible but subtle points about colonialism makes this book flow. The brilliant result is an easy, quick,  informative and thrilling read.

The book has a timeless quality with its themes of racism and imperialism that are sadly as relevant today as they were during the era of this novel. With its honest appraisal of Britain’s bigoted treatment of those they ruled make  for incredibly uncomfortable but necessary reading.

Orwell continued to fight social injustice and made suggestions for improvement later in his non-fiction (The Road to Wigan Pier 1937) and pointed it out in his fiction (Keep the Aspidistra Flying 1936) but  Burmese Days gets a little lost in translation at times as a work of fiction based on fact, seemingly accepting the gentle demise of British rule in South East Asia rather than pushing for its immediate end. It seems clear at times that Orwell is speaking directly through Flory about his shame of having been a part of the colonial regime in Burma.

While Burmese Days appears not to have gone down in history as a classic Orwellian novel, it provides an intriguing background read for anyone wanting to understand the origins of Orwell the literary giant who became an important voice for generations of anti war proponents. 

 

 

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Dominic Stevenson is a book reviewer and writer from London, England. He studied creative writing and English Literature at Kingston University and currently works for a children’s charity. Dominic particularly enjoys the work of British writers George Orwell and Richard Milward, as well as translated writings from South America and Spain by authors such as Eduardo Galeano, Javier Marias and Paulo Coelho.  Dominic’s writing can be found HERE and you can follow him on Twitter@Fantastical_Dom.

 

 

 

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