Sol­dier’s ob­jec­tive take on vi­o­lence of war

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The best writ­ers are made in two ways. More of­ten than not the fun­da­men­tal com­mit­ment is a quiet, slow-mo­tion ad­ven­ture, years in the de­cid­ing, but some­times the mak­ing hap­pens much faster, as­crib­able to one ex­pe­ri­ence, one piv­otal in­ter­ac­tion, one trans­for­ma­tive idea. In the case of de­but nov­el­ist Harry Parker it was, as he has read­ily di­vulged, the loss of half of him­self that first in­spired and then mo­ti­vated him to be­come a writer.

Now a 32-year-old Bri­tish ex-sol­dier, in 2009 Parker’s legs were blown off in Afghanistan by an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice. An army-fund- ed cre­ative writ­ing course in 2013, taken to­wards the end of his long phys­i­cal re­cov­ery, helped Parker come to terms men­tally and emo­tion­ally with what had hap­pened to him. It was dur­ing the course that his re­mark­able novel be­gan to take shape.

Anatomy of a Sol­dier is an ac­count of a few years in the life of Bri­tish army cap­tain Tom Barnes, who in the open­ing pages steps on a mine, with each chap­ter nar­rated from the per­spec­tive of a dif­fer­ent ob­ject. These ob­jects are, in or­der: a tourni­quet, a desert com­bat boot, an IED, a cuffed en­do­tra­cheal tube, a back­pack, a hand­bag, a Nike sneaker, a zy­gote fun­gus, a pair of night-vi­sion gog­gles, a broom han­dle, an os­cil­lat­ing med­i­cal bone saw, a 9V bat­tery, a head­set ra­dio, a blood bag, a dig­i­tal watch, an army beret, a catheter, a shav­ing ra­zor, an army cot, a piece of print­ing pa­per, an aerial pho­to­graph, a rug, a piece of let­ter-writ­ing pa­per, a ri­fle, a wheel­chair, a bath­room mir­ror, a bed, a bi­cy­cle, a pros­thetic leg, an un­manned aerial sur­veil­lance plane (that is, a drone), a drop of wa­ter, a wheel­bar­row, a $100 bill, a ser­vice medal, a pint glass, Kevlar up­per body ar­mour, a hy­draulic pros­thetic leg, an army hel­met, an ex­plo­sion, a set of dog tags, a flag and a pros­thetic car­bon­fi­bre ath­letic run­ning blade.

It’s im­por­tant to list them all be­cause a) it shows the depth of the ex­per­i­ment and Parker’s fidelity to it, and b) it’s in no way a spoiler to re­veal these ob­jects for, as James Wood knows, a novel that can be truly spoiled by the sum­mary of its plot is a novel that was al­ready spoiled by that plot. Anatomy of a Sol­dier suc­ceeds be­cause of its frag­mented na­ture, for it doesn’t just tell, and it doesn’t even just show — it in­volves.

Through­out these 45 short chap­ters, as far as any lin­ear nar­ra­tive goes, it’s a thor­oughly dis­ori­ent­ing read — in­deed, Parker has said of the chap­ters that he “wanted it to be like you could chuck them into the air and read them in any or­der be­cause that’s what it’s like to be blown up”. The chap­ters jump back and forth in time, de­scrib­ing scenes from Barnes’s de­ploy­ment, his long and har­row­ing re­cu­per­a­tion, and the lives of local peo­ple, in­clud­ing Afghan in­sur­gents, whose paths Barnes even­tu­ally crosses.

Even without the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal par­al­lels, Anatomy of a Sol­dier is an un­com­mon feat: a work of lit­er­ary cu­bism that will ap­peal to a wide read­er­ship. We are fa­mil­iar with these ob­jects whether we’ve held them or seen them in books, films and TV shows, and we are starkly un­fa­mil­iar with all the rest: real war zones, ac­tual ex­plo­sions, the los­ing of limbs. It of­ten takes a few para­graphs or some­times even most or all of a chap­ter be­fore we un­der­stand which ob­ject we are em­body­ing. Again, this dis­joint­ed­ness is de­lib­er­ate. Parker again: “I liked the idea of cre-

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