Twisted debris and shattered lives, in rewind
Thanks to its backtracking structure, this look at one of the defining wars of our time is fresh and compelling, writes James Kidd
War fiction and the backwards novel seem uniquely suited. Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow flew in reverse to depict the atrocities committed by Nazi doctors: one implication being that unspeakable evil could, in another universe, have produced good. Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch worked like a bomb un-exploding. Retreating from 1947 to 1941, the story followed three women from trauma realised to trauma imagined.
Both these backtracking books extract maximum ironic pathos from man’s inhumanity to man, which leads us to Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant. It unspools backwards through the US invasion of Iraq. Emma Fowler, a lieutenant in the US army, leads a small platoon to recover Carl Beale, a sergeant who has, in all probability, been killed by terrorists. We are in a remote field west of Baghdad. There is a hazy chain of command. Mostly, we feel chaos.
Terrell’s predominant mode is the question, which appears in often surreal combinations: “So what do you want from me?”; “What the hell are you doing?”; and most bizarre of all, “What do you mean, a spaceship?”
Fowler’s mission ends badly. Beale is still missing. Several men are killed, including a young Iraqi shot in ambiguous circumstances. Another, Dixon Pulowski, is gravely injured. In our last glimpse, Fowler gives him the kiss of life in what proves to be a moving echo of a more romantic kiss stolen before the violence.
From here, the platoon plummets from one disaster to another. Beale was kidnapped during an earlier botched operation, at the Muthana intersection, which was itself a response to a previous botched operation at the same dangerously under-protected location. These calamities exacerbate Fowler’s already profound insecurities, which are under daily assault in the fraught world of military politics: a stew of gender bias, hierarchy and scheming.
The American storyline (which ends in Kansas with the soldiers in basic training) is spliced with an Iraqi drama. Ayad, the deaf man killed in that frenetic opening, is torn between invaders and insurgents, thanks largely to that bitterly-contested field which his family owns. Intensifying the pressure is the intermediary in the negotiations with the Shiite resistance: Ayad’s only childhood friend, Faisal Amar, who works as an interpreter for the Americans but plays all sides in a precarious bid for survival.
So, does Terrell’s narrative-in-retreat work? There were moments when I wondered if it was more gimmick than art. Mostly, however, The Good Lieutenant’s impersonation of an onion being unpeeled works to powerful effect. Take Beale, whose contradictory character is revealed like a Russian doll.
Having first witnessed Beale as the tragic victim, we see: Beale the hero; the reckless; the disobedient; the loyal; the manipulator; and eventually the wild young man seeking purpose. This proves a convincing method both of portraying the vicissitudes of human behaviour and the uncontrollable momentum of war.
Indeed, a central question proposed by Terrell’s form and content concerns responsibility. Who or what is to blame? September 11? The Bush clan? Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait? Oil in the Middle East? How about the creation of the planet as a whole? As a journalist (he covered the war for a number of US publications), Terrell sought answers first hand on the battlefront. In his fiction, he explores motivations by turns political and personal: drama is created by juxtaposing the unsettling ethics of torture and a childhood friendship sealed by a shared love of science fiction.
The Good Lieutenant’s underlying ambivalence is less an artistic defeat than an acknowledgement of the complexity of the issues. Terrell’s well-rounded characters frequently act badly with good reason and vice versa. Mostly, they are reactive, pushed to make rash decisions in the heat of the moment or by another’s bidding. The resulting quicksand of ironies can be by turns infuriating and deeply moving: Ayad’s simple desire to escape his surroundings is cruelly undercut by political forces that entrap him; Fowler’s desire to protect Pulowski ultimately endangers him.
These contrasts weigh heavily on the “good” in Terrell’s title and hint at another possible influence: Ford Madox Ford’s slippery The Good Soldier, which admittedly doesn’t reverse so much as zigzag. In that self-proclaimed “saddest story ever told”, nothing is ever as the unreliable narrator tells it.
For Terrell’s characters, war has determined that life itself is essentially unreliable. That he has turned this into fiction at once compelling and sensitive, dramatic and intelligent, is impressive indeed.
James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London. Dasa Drndic MacLehose Press, April 20
Andreas Ban, a writer, retires on a paltry pension and defiantly surveys the wreckage of his life. He is a castaway in a society which subdues every thought under the dogma of political correctness. Drndic is the author of acclaimed work
and this has been newly-translated from Croatian.
Iraqis and US forces topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, in April 2003. The Good Lieutenant is set against the backdrop of the US invasion of the country.
The Good Lieutenant