LIFE FIGHT­ING A BRU­TAL PAST

Shrap­nel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Dapin

THIS is an ex­tra­or­di­nary mem­oir by a man who did not want to write it and had strong reser­va­tions about peo­ple read­ing it. In the 1970s and 80s, Wil­liam Whar­ton wrote sev­eral pop­u­lar lit­er­ary nov­els, in­clud­ing Birdy, Dad and A Mid­night Clear.

Dur­ing World War II, he served in the US Army in Europe. When he came home and started a fam­ily, his chil­dren would some­times ask him about the war, but he would never de­scribe the ‘‘ un­ac­cept­able ex­pe­ri­ences’’ he had lived through, and found his own ‘‘ cal­lous­ness, cow­ardice, cu­pid­ity, de­cep­tion . . . im­pos­si­ble to de­fend’’.

But, in the end, real writ­ers have to tell ev­ery story that grows inside them. They must see them read and have them judged. And so Whar­ton even­tu­ally com­pleted Shrap­nel, even though he knew that ‘‘ when dug up, the buried guilts of youth smell of dirty rags and old blood’’.

By 1999 Whar­ton was lit­tle read in English but had some­how re­mained pop­u­lar in Poland, where Shrap­nel was first pub­lished. It ap­peared only in a Pol­ish-lan­guage trans­la­tion and, un­til the au­thor’s death in 2008, few had in­ves­ti­gated its con­tents. The de­tails of Whar­ton’s wartime ser­vice were re­garded as a mys­tery, the clues to which could be found only in char­ac­ters in his nov­els, such as Al Colum­bato in Birdy, who strikes a cor­po­ral in the face with a shovel.

In Shrap­nel, Whar­ton re­veals he did that and far worse, and tells how much he hated the army for teach­ing him how to kill.

The book be­gins with a se­ries of un­adorned, dead­pan vi­gnettes of Whar­ton’s mil­i­tary train­ing, and these are bit­ter and bor­ing. He of­fers the stan­dard nar­ra­tives of army life — the klutzy re­cruit; the sneaky re­venge on an un­pop­u­lar of­fi­cer; the re­source­ful con­script who tricks his way out of the mil­i­tary; the cushy post­ing to the camp kitchen — but tells them with lit­tle hu­mour and none of the masochis­tic nos­tal­gia that gen­er­ally ac­com­pa­nies bar­racks con­fes­sions.

With­out the cus­tom­ary punch­lines, these sto­ries at first ap­pear point­less and their cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is grind­ing, dispir­it­ing. But it By Wil­liam Whar­ton HarperPress, 272pp, $24.95 be­comes clear that this is army life how it was lived, not how it is re­mem­bered, and it was nasty, bor­ing, un­com­fort­able and point­less.

Once Whar­ton goes to war, Shrap­nel be­comes sim­ply as­ton­ish­ing.

This is only a short book and it would be cruel to give too much away, but his ex­pe­ri­ences would be un­be­liev­able if his flat, hope­less voice did not clearly carry the recog­nis­able burden of mostly un­adorned truth. I say ‘‘ mostly’’ only be­cause Whar­ton’s overly ex­pos­i­tory re­con­structed di­a­logue is rarely con­vinc­ing.

Whar­ton, a sol­dier with few dis­cernible mil­i­tary skills, is in­ex­pli­ca­bly parachuted into Ger­man-oc­cu­pied France, alone and ahead of the en­tire US Army, on a se­cret mis­sion to aid the French re­sis­tance.

This ex­pe­ri­ence, like ev­ery other, leaves him an­gry and con­fused. But as the in­va­sion gets un­der way, the hor­rors he wit­nesses be­come worse and worse, un­til he can hardly cope.

US marines ap­proach the beaches of Nor­mandy on D-Day

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