RUN­NING WITH WORDS

A for­mer Bri­tish army of­fi­cer dis­abled by war has found a new vo­ca­tion as a nov­el­ist

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - REVIEWS - GRANTLEE KIEZA Anatomy of a Sol­dier, Allen & Unwin $30

Harry Parker lost both legs in Afghanistan but amid the pain and chaos he un­cov­ered a rich and unique voice.

It soars in Parker’s stun­ning de­but novel, which looks at war and its con­se­quences in ways that are con­fronting, com­pelling and cathar­tic. Edna O’Brien, the doyenne of Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture, has called Anatomy of a Sol­dier a “bril­liant book, di­rect from the bat­tle zone, where all the para­pher­na­lia of slaugh­ter is de­ployed’’.

Award-win­ning Bri­tish/Pak­istani nov­el­ist Nadeem As­lam calls Parker’s novel “a tour de force ... bril­liant and be­guil­ing’’ with pages that are “dan­ger­ous but which con­tain com­pas­sion and sor­row too’’.

From his home in Lon­don’s south, Parker, 32, a for­mer Bri­tish army of­fi­cer now in com­mand of a bud­ding lit­er­ary ca­reer, tells Qweek­end he’s a bit em­bar­rassed by the at­ten­tion his book has gen­er­ated and is just happy that it has res­onated with so many peo­ple.

“It’s all been a bit crazy re­ally,’’ he says. “I didn’t want to write a sol­dier’s memoir and I felt that a novel gave me greater free­dom to write from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.’’

The boy­ishly hand­some and af­fa­ble young fa­ther re­ally didn’t know what to ex­pect af­ter con­ceiv­ing the novel dur­ing his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion process and af­ter­wards de­vot­ing 12 fran­tic weeks, high on adren­a­line and caf­feine, writ­ing the bulk of his con­fronting tale in public li­braries, cof­fee shops and art gal­leries.

“I wrote a lot of it at the Tate Mod­ern gallery. The cof­fee’s very ex­pen­sive there, but it’s also very good.’’

The writ­ing is also very good, a bold new way of look­ing at the war novel by a man who has felt the full im­pact of bat­tle­field hor­ror and is able to por­tray it with the de­tach­ment of an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence.

Anatomy of a Sol­dier re­counts the tribu­la­tions of its hero, Bri­tish army captain Tom Barnes, from the mo­ment he steps on an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice in an un­named con­flict in an un­named land.

Parker draws heav­ily on his ex­pe­ri­ences in war zones, trauma units and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion clin­ics. Af­ter serv­ing in Iraq, Parker stepped on a mine while lead­ing a group of 50 sol­diers through an Afghan field in 2009.

Like Parker, Barnes loses one leg to the blast and one to in­fec­tion, but the story of his char­ac­ter’s fight for sur­vival and his strug­gles to ad­just to a new life is told through 45 nar­ra­tors, inan­i­mate ob­jects, among them the tourni­quet used to stem his bleed­ing, a bike, dog tags, a bag of fer­tiliser, a $100 bill given to an Afghan man as com­pen­sa­tion for his dead son and the elec­tric hospi­tal saw that cuts through Tom Barnes’s man­gled, dead limb.

A tube in­serted into Tom is one of the nar­ra­tors and it de­scribes what Tom looks like on the op­er­at­ing table: “Your left lit­tle fin­ger hung by a sinew. Your groin had a clean shin­ing wound that oozed blood. A tes­ti­cle hung open, de­formed and alien.”

Amid the hor­ror of the whole aw­ful busi­ness of war, though, is a story of hope; of a man get­ting on with his life and re­build­ing him­self.

Parker says there was an el­e­ment of cathar­sis in the writ­ing but con­cedes some pas­sages also opened old wounds. The chap­ter in which Tom breaks down at the re­al­i­sa­tion of his in­juries is par­tic­u­larly poignant and gru­elling.

There are elements of black hu­mour, too, of body parts be­ing tal­lied in the am­putee ward, of the clum­si­ness of friends and fam­ily deal­ing with a limb­less loved one.

More than self-heal­ing though, Parker says writ­ing this pow­er­ful novel “was the op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing else with my life, the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate and to write and have peo­ple read my work’’.

While Parker shared many of his main char­ac­ter’s ex­pe­ri­ences he ad­mits “writ­ing in fic­tion made it a much more pow­er­ful story than memoir and I was able to ex­per­i­ment with a dif­fer­ent way of telling the story’’.

Parker’s char­ac­ters see all sides of the con­flict, from the brave Bri­tish captain lead­ing his men to the naive in­sur­gents mak­ing bombs and the fright­ened vil­lagers try­ing to protect their fam­i­lies from for­eign sol­diers.

Parker is the son of a knighted Bri­tish gen­eral who, four months af­ter his son was wounded, took up the post of deputy NATO com­man­der in Afghanistan.

The young of­fi­cer had stud­ied fine arts be­fore his de­ploy­ment and dur­ing his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion took up an army­funded week-long writ­ing course in the Devon coun­try­side. It taught him in­valu­able lessons on ob­ser­va­tion, struc­ture and di­a­logue.

“The course taught me to look at things from dif­fer­ent an­gles,’’ Parker says. “I met a lot of in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters and came away with a lot of ideas on how to use fic­tion to tell an im­por­tant story.’’

He is al­ready work­ing on a sec­ond novel, with “no sol­diers and no inan­i­mate ob­jects ... but it will be an­other novel about con­flict’’.

For now, Parker con­tin­ues to mir­ror the strug­gles and tri­umphs of Tom Barnes who, at the novel’s con­clu­sion, is jog­ging in a Lon­don park on pros­thetic blades with a dog chas­ing him and bark­ing at the strange­ness of the con­trap­tions. There is a fall on a bump in the bi­tu­men; the crack­ing noise of go­ing face first on the tar­mac; of bleed­ing palms stud­ded with black grit.

And just like his fic­tional hero, the au­thor knows how to pick him­self up, re­move the dam­aged pros­thet­ics, at­tach a spare set of legs and get back to work.

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