A sol­dier’s tale of sur­vival

In his de­but novel, Harry Parker draws on his own ex­pe­ri­ences of los­ing his legs to a land­mine. But the trauma of his fic­tional army cap­tain is told by 45 inan­i­mate ob­jects, James Kidd writes

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There are mo­ments lis­ten­ing to Harry Parker when you can fool your­self into think­ing he is sim­ply an­other au­thor dis­cussing an­other de­but novel. Calm, friendly and unas­sum­ing in con­ver­sa­tion, 32-year-old Parker talks with amused en­thu­si­asm about writ­ing Anatomy of a Sol­dier, some­thing for which his back­grounds in fine art and the Bri­tish army had not pre­pared him.

“I def­i­nitely felt like a begin­ner,” he says when we meet at his pub­lisher’s Lon­don of­fices. “I am not that well-read. I am try­ing to catch up now.” His naivety did re­sult in a cu­ri­ous style: the novel is nar­rated by more than 40 inan­i­mate ob­jects in­clud­ing a pair of pris­tine train­ers, a tourni­quet, a home­made bomb and a mother’s handbag.

“When I started, I didn’t re­ally know that telling a story from the point of view of inan­i­mate ob­jects was a strange thing to do.”

When Parker sum­marises Anatomy of a Sol­dier, he does so in a mat­ter-of-fact tone that be­lies its in­tensely per­sonal ori­gins. “It’s about a young of­fi­cer who goes to an un­named con­flict.

“The book opens with him be­ing in­jured, and un­less some­thing in­ter­venes he’ll die, ba­si­cally…We see the IED [im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice] that in­jures him be­ing built. Some of the in­sur­gents and their re­la­tion­ship to him. We see him ar­riv­ing in hos­pi­tal, and his mother. It re­ally tells the story of Tom Barnes’s re­cov­ery and the route he took to be­ing in­jured.”

Nev­er­the­less, you only need to glance at the high-tech pros­thetic limbs on both his legs to re­alise how lit­tle is con­veyed by the word “in­jured”, to re­call that Parker him­self ex­pe­ri­enced the same dev­as­tat­ing tri­als that Barnes does in the book. On July 18, 2009, Parker was lead­ing 50 men back from a night pa­trol in Nad-e-Ali district, Cen­tral Hel­mand, when he stepped on a land­mine.

“My mem­o­ries of the ex­plo­sion are pretty clear, but now slightly mixed up with how I reimag­ined it in Anatomy. I would leave the li­brary [af­ter a day’s writ­ing] with the phys­i­cal feel­ing, the feel­ings of sad­ness. It was pretty grim.”

Years of phys­io­ther­apy fol­lowed, ac­com­pa­nied by a pro­found re­com­po­si­tion of his char­ac­ter. “Even now, ev­ery time I walk down the street and see my­self in a glass build­ing, it looks odd be­cause my sense of self is not how I ap­pear in my own mind. When I was first in­jured and you see this space where you used to have legs, that is very hard to take. I wanted to ex­plore that in the book.”

It is typ­i­cal of Parker’s no-non­sense op­ti­mism that he wasn’t bit­ter or de­spair­ing. “I did mourn the loss of my legs. I was an­gry, but not for very long. If you are stupid enough to be a sol­dier then you have to ex­pect that might hap­pen. Re­cov­ery and learn­ing to walk again was quite ex­cit­ing and ful­fill­ing.”

This con­trasts with Tom Barnes in the novel, whose emo­tional range is broader and more volatile. His fi­nal thoughts be­fore step­ping on the land­mine, iron­i­cally, con­cern the ro­mance of sol­dier­ing. “I didn’t want to talk about con­flict in a way that sen­ti­men­talised it, or make peo­ple think that be­ing a sol­dier is a great thing,” Parker says. “But I did want to get some of the ex­cite­ment and pride I felt about be­ing to op­er­ate in those ar­eas.

“There is a def­i­nite ar­ro­gance be­ing there with your body armour on, feel­ing in­vin­ci­ble in this far­away coun­try.”

Parker by con­trast was “just sweaty and tired” af­ter an ar­du­ous night pa­trol. This might ex­plain the reck­less short­cut he took away from pre­scribed routes to camp.

“I made a mis­take,” he says, al­beit one in ac­cor­dance with the mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of the time. “The like­li­hood of some­thing be­ing dug-in in line of sight is pretty low be­cause it is over-watched by our camp. That turns out to be a mis­take be­cause some­body snuck in in the middle of the night and put some­thing in the ground. Once that bomb went off, no one op­er­ated in that way any­more be­cause ev­ery­one learned the lessons. I al­ways feel as an of­fi­cer I made a mis­take, but also that mis­take is more to do with luck and things that I can’t con­trol.”

Anatomy of a Sol­dier is the first ma­jor novel by a Bri­tish sol­dier-writer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al­though Barnes never names the coun­try, it is a dead-ringer for the lat­ter.

Like his Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts Brian Turner, Michael Pitre, Phil Klay and Kevin Pow­ers, Parker fuses a cleareyed ac­count of the oc­cu­pa­tion with a con­certed at­tempt to imag­ine the lives of those he was ei­ther pro­tect­ing or fight­ing.

“At one end you have Al Qaeda. At the other, a guy who has just bought a pair of train­ers for $10 and has slightly got [in­volved in the in­sur­gency]. In be­tween you have a whole ar­ray of dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions. Writ­ing the book and char­ac­ter­is­ing those peo­ple re-hu­man­ised them.”

In the novel, th­ese com­plex­i­ties are per­son­i­fied by Faridun and Latif, friends with com­pet­ing con­cep­tions of duty. Latif joins the in­sur­gency and even­tu­ally plants the ex­plo­sive de­vice Tom Barnes trig­gers. Faridun fol­lows his father’s foot­steps in tread­ing the treach­er­ous line be­tween oc­cu­piers and “ter­ror­ists”.

Did Parker find it chal­leng­ing to em­pathise with the very peo­ple who al­most killed him? “There is as much of me in Latif and Faridun [as Barnes],” he replies. “I would al­ways think, if for­eign sol­diers were rum­bling down my street how would I re­act? I would prob­a­bly be plant­ing bombs my­self. That is one rea­son the in­sur­gents are mir­rors. The rea­sons that they joined up may not be that dif­fer­ent to the rea­sons why I joined up.”

Sim­i­lar am­bi­gu­i­ties run through­out Parker’s life and con­ver­sa­tion. His fam­ily is steeped in mil­i­tary tra­di­tion. His father, Gen­eral Sir Ni­cholas Parker, was Nato’s deputy

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