Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1994)

Inspired by The Cellist of Sarajevo again...

Sebastain Faulks is not in a hurry to tell a story. That said, if you have the patience to stay with him, you will be well rewarded. Birdsong is not your typical soldier-in-WW1 story... Faulks introduces us to Stephen, his main character, in France in 1910 - a clever, impulsive, and self-absorbed young man who falls in love with his host's young wife, and runs away with her. When we next meet him, he is alone, cynical, self-sufficient and an infantry officer. Faulk's descriptions of a soldier's life are gritty, bloody, terrifying and unflinching. But the real magic in this novel is that the soldier's primary trouble is not the physical hardships, but their inability to make sense of the world gone mad.

This existential debate comes to a head most clearly in the quiet hours after a big battle. As in this passage: " It's the noise. Can't you hear it? Stephen had noticed nothing but the silence that followed the guns. Now, as he listened... he could hear the low continuous moaning. He could not make out any individual pain, but the sound ran down to the river on their left and up over the hill for a half a mile or more... it sounded to him like the earth itself was groaning. Weir began to cry. 'What have we done, what have we done? Listen to it. We've done something terrible, we'll never get back to how it was before.' ... As Stephen listened to the soil protesting, he heard the sound of a new world. If he did not fight to control himself, he might never return to the reality in which he had lived." (page 239)

Faulks follows Stephen (and his next generation) after the war to show us how the world really was changed, and at the same time, how the next generation forgot what went on before them.

Critics say:
"Ambitious, outrageous, poignant, sleep-disturbing.." Simon Schama, New Yorker
" This is literature at it's very best: a book with the power to reveal the unimagined, so that on's life is set into a changed context. I urge you to read it." Nigel Watts, Time Out

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