What is it about the Great War and great writing? Even before the war had concluded, there was already an outpouring of poetry astounding for its volume and quality; in the years immediately thereafter, memoirists and novelists outdid each other in outlining the violence done to the mind by the conflict. The First World War became, to the literary, a world war won.
Despite the passing of nearly a century, the War to End All Wars will not go away, as it continues to inspire artists born generations after the guns fell silent. Not only has recent non-fiction, creative and otherwise, fixed its sights on the distant calamity, but so too has the work of novelists, the best two at the turn of our century being England’s Pat Barker and France’s Jean Rouaud. Now comes Ireland’s formidable John Boyne.
In his early 40s, yet with a clutch of novels under his belt, including the controversial young adult tale The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne applies his prodigious storytelling skills to the war in The Absolutist, a sad, moving novel of morality adrift in a cataclysm.
The Great War pioneered many things, both hideous and humanitarian, but one in particular retains Boyne’s attention: the conscientious objector. The men who said no to the war implicitly posed a threefold – and timeless – question: What is bravery? What is cowardice? And how does one remain good in a world of evil?
Boyne’s narrator is a homosexual Londoner, Tristan Sadler, whom we meet as a teenager in 1916 at a boot camp in Aldershot and in the trenches of Picardy, and again in 1919, when, now a 20-year-old veteran, he visits the town of Norwich to console the grieving sister of a former comrade-in-arms, Will Bancroft, who was court-martialed for cowardice and executed on the battlefield in 1916.
The two times of the novel – 1916 and 1919, war and peace, action and reflection – receive markedly different narrative treatments, but Boyne takes the reader back and forth seamlessly, revealing information precisely when it is most effective.
Told in the present tense, the war scenes are brutal, descriptive, gory, over the top in both senses of that phrase. The friendship of Tristan and Will, homoerotic and complex, strains in the madness of their surroundings, with violent death a daily visitor and the lunacy of superior officers a given.
As the reader senses with dread where all this is heading, the story shifts ahead to placid Norwich, and to a conventional past-tense exposition that nonetheless seems tinged with a dreamlike unreality as seen through Tristan’s war-weary eyes.
Boyne’s powers are best displayed here, the characters’ awkward silences mixing with bursts of overwhelming fluency about the changing times, as if straight out of Ibsen. The extended conversation between Tristan and Will’s family deftly evokes the social upheaval wrought by the war, from the emancipation of women to what Will’s father sees as the biggest change, saying, “Things are rather out of kilter now, aren’t they? It is your generation who understands the inhumanity of man, not ours. It’s boys like you who have to live with what you have seen and what you have done.”
Throughout his dual narratives, Boyne has intimated just that – what Tristan has seen and done matters most to this morality play. When the reader finally sees the shocking truth, in a stunningly crafted finale, all that has come before makes perfect sense. As if to comfort, Boyne then takes us six decades ahead for a coda reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Only in The Absolutist, with its constant questioning of cowardice and bravery, the device makes perfect, satisfying sense. In it, the 80-year-old Tristan at last accomplishes the sole brave act of his entire life.
Stephen O’Shea’s most recent book is The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars.