Thursday, January 22, 2015

War Sucks: On Phil Klay's REDEPLOYMENT and Dinaw Mengestu's ALL OUR NAMES

One of the really fun things about being, um, less than deliberate in how I pick books is reading very different novels right after one another that complement each other, theme-wise. That's the case with Phil Klay's National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment and Ethopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu's 2014 novel All Our Names.

These are two very, very different books —but they have one commonality: they both explore how stupid, brutal, and absurd war is, and its lasting affect on both its participants, but also those who become collateral damage in one way or another.

In Klay's collection about soldiers in the Iraq war, a major theme is the effect on soldiers' psyches of the horrific violence they witness daily, as well as the complex psychological effects of being duty-bound to kill. Sometimes they're racked with merciless guilt, sometimes they think it's awesome and go eat lunch (hey, you don't get cherry cobbler often!), sometimes they come home and do things they'd never have otherwise done (shoot dogs, visit hookers, exaggerate what really happened). Several stories in Klay's collection also deal with the question of who, really, are the "good guys" in war? Of course, we assume we are, but the average Iraqi certainly doesn't see it that way.

One story, in particular, my favorite in the collection, titled "Money as a Weapons System," shows how we're often doing more harm than good in Iraq — it's a Catch 22-esque story about a guy who is tasked with redevelopment in Iraq, trying to rebuild a water treatment plant, but winds up teaching Iraqi women how to bee-keep and having to take photos of Iraqi kids fake-playing baseball, because a rich ignorant guy in Oklahoma thinks it's important to spread American baseball as a symbol of freedom. It's so sad it's funny. (Or so funny it's sad?)

In Mengestu's novel, about an uprising against an oppressive African regime in the early 1970s, the fighters of a small band of revolutionaries are supposedly on the side of right — they're fighting against injustice, after all. But they still commit acts of atrocity against common citizens.  And common citizens commit terrible violence against other citizens. So, who really are the good guys? Here, it's even less clear.

The novel involves two alternating strains of story — one taking place in Africa, one in a small Midwest town soon after the events (it's the early 1970s) that had just happened in Africa. The US-set strain of story furthers even more the theme of "those without sin can cast the first stone." The African refugee begins a romantic relationship with his mid-20s white social worker (who is narrating this part of the story). She takes him for lunch one day at her favorite diner, and both are saddened (though not totally surprised) when it's suggested that they're making people uncomfortable, so wouldn't it be better if they finished their lunch elsewhere. The point is that it's absurd that a man could escape the lawlessness and violence of an African revolution to come to what is supposedly an enlightened, first-world country like the U.S., but then still be discriminated against. Will their relationship survive?

Both of these are fantastic books, and I highly recommend both, whether or not you read them one after the other.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't heard of All Our Names - definitely need to check both of these out.