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

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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.

Jerome De­lay / AP Photo

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.

Whit­ney Ter­rell Pi­cador, Dh69

The Good Lieu­tenant

Bel­ladonna

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