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Execution

By Colin McDougall

McClelland & Stewart,

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278 pages, $12.95

Confiding to his private notebook on April 9, 1953, about the first novel he was desperate to write, Montrealer Colin McDougall wrote, "It is deadening to think about that even the greatest works can say so little. Is it worth trying to say anything?" The veteran of the Second World War was convinced he had something to say about his wartime experience. He had been planning Execution for at least two years. For four more, he would continue struggling daily against the distractions of a busy administrative job at McGill University and a young family, until his book's publication in 1958.

Execution is the best Canadian novel about the Second World War, and one of best novels about war anywhere. Its reissue in the New Canadian Library series brings today's readers a novel that won wide acclaim and the Governor-General's Award for fiction in 1958.

While its famous First World War fictional comrade, Timothy Findley's The Wars, is a work of pure imagination, McDougall's book was born in 18 months of combat during the Italian campaign. The emotional and psychic toll, and McDougall's postwar desperation to write about it in what was to be his only published novel, results in what some critics have detected as instances of slight awkwardness and rough spots. Execution is less refined, less crafted than The Wars. Yet readers will be moved by the power of McDougall's storytelling, and more so by his achievement in writing what Faulkner called the "heart's truth out of the heart's driving complexity." McDougall's characters, almost all volunteer citizen soldiers, struggle with doing what they know is right and with the wartime orders to kill that they are duty-bound to execute.

Execution of orders beats as the ethical heart of the book, which Warren Cariou, in an insightful afterword, calls "a most exotic hybrid: a philosophical novel, a symbolist meditation on the meaning of action." The battlefield action explodes at the book's centre in McDougall's fictionalization of the May 23, 1944, attack by Canadians on the Hitler Line, where more than half his regiment, the Princess Patricias, became casualties. McDougall also doesn't let the reader forget that the novel is set in an age of total war that spares no one: There are heartbreaking episodes of Canadian soldiers witnessing Italian civilians savaged by battle.

But the emotional and ethical glory of Execution is in the suffering of soldiers ordered to kill innocents, prisoners of war wrongly accused of being snipers and a Canadian soldier sentenced to death by firing squad. The complexity of suffering cannot be borne alone by the book's hero, John Adam. McDougall has him share his ethical burden with the padre and Major "Bunny" Bazin, a Royal Military College grad and the book's cynical philosopher. Bazin understands their terrible paradox: "Man fully realized himself as man, attained fulfilment, only under the savage scourge of war." Bazin also explains to Adam that war is execution, and that in war "it is man's plight to acquiesce," to carry out orders to kill not only the enemy, but to participate in the killing of civilians, of one's own comrades and, ultimately, to kill or severely wound one's moral being.

To survive these self-inflicted moral wounds, some of McDougall's soldiers find love, with the women they meet and with their comrades. The most touching of these relationships are Adam's, with a young prostitute, who demands he say "Ti amo" before they have sex, and with Jones, the simpleton private Adam must accompany as the sacrificial victim to the firing squad. The execution is at the behest of the high command, the military representatives of "the System," the modern state and its powerful partners, whose orders we must obey despite deep misgivings.

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Ordered to execute Jones, whom they know is innocent, the soldiers are perplexed by the "the sour incongruity of the thing. Up north men were being killed every day; there life was regarded as precious; every effort was made to preserve each life -- but back here this band of soldiers was assembled for the sole purpose of killing one of their number. Like all the others, he could not help feeling this was wrong, in some basic, indefinable way."

McDougall's story gives no easy rescue from the moral dilemma. He offers only the possibility of a saving grace -- fugitive, almost impossible to understand, but strongly felt -- that is the only personal victory his characters may claim.

We do not know how Mcdougall learned of the actual killing by firing squad of Private Harold Pringle, the only Canadian soldier executed during the Second World War. (Pringle's story, with comments about its relation to Execution, may be found in Andrew Clark's 2002 A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle.) The execution was declared an official secret by the Mackenzie King government. McDougall found in the execution, which also took place in Italy, the plot frame and thematic core of his story.

It was a book he was driven to write. He saved his personal notebook and notes, dating from 1951 to 1958, and gave them to the McGill University Archives before he died in 1984. In the summer of 1952, he confides in his notes, "I have to write to fulfill myself: it is the most important function in the world to me . . . to find pride in myself . . . it is the only way I can make any real contribution to the life to which I was born. . . . I must write to be the best man I can be." He also sees his novel as the "purging of the whole war experience."

He will strive for his novel "to be 'Canadian,' and yet universal." As he is writing the first drafts, he affirms that "The 'execution' is the execution of Man," and will be revealed in "all the unbelievably sad, aching, tender things I want to say about war, & men at war."

McDougall's confidential notes to himself repeatedly declare his profound need to tell his story as an act of self-fulfilment, and perhaps to atone for or lay to rest the ghosts of his wartime past.

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Yet for all the power of McDougall's notes, with their anguish, pleading or reproach, they must be read with the caution not to trust the teller, but the tale. With the reissue of Execution, on this 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and Pringle's execution, more readers can put that trust to the test. And some of their responses may well be in sympathy with Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who died this week and who wrote McDougall that he read the novel at one sitting because he found "something essential under the surface, something of real power, a terrible question beyond our ability to resolve. The question in your book is -- how much cruelty puts out our human light? How can we endure?"

Steve Lukits teaches English at the Royal Military College in Kingston and is researching the composition and manuscripts of Execution. He would welcome any information about its author at lukits@rmc.ca.

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