Book Review: No Man’s Land
edited by Pete Ayrton
Pegasus Books, 2014
It’s been a long and grueling year, but the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One is slowly drawing to its close. We’ve had TV specials, boring speeches, and book after book after book after book. We’ve had endless reflections in the periodical press. We’ve had biographies of dozens of famous participants, from Lloyd George to Wilfred Owen. We’ve even had the predictable spectacle of a fatuous Sean Wilentz in the pages of The New Republic condescendingly referring to Barbara Tuchman as “more of a storyteller than a scholar.” We can expect a few more biographies, perhaps one or two remaining serious histories, and then we’ll be on to 2015 and, presumably, a slew of books on the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.
And if we’re lucky, one or two of those remaining books will stand out from the general swell, and one such is this drab green new volume from Pegasus Books, the boringly-titled No Man’s Land, an endlessly fascinating collection of bits and excerpts of fiction arising from the war. The master of these ceremonies is Peter Ayrton, who’s done his readers an enormous service by remembering the truly global scope of the war; those readers are almost certainly going to encounter in these pages some authors they’ve never read before – certainly never read before in any anthology along these lines, which usually confine themselves rather safely to such familiar figures as Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon, Willa Cather, Joseph Roth, and of course Erich Maria Remarque.
Those familiar figures are all represented here too, of course, but Ayrton superbly sets them in a much broader context. We get an excerpt, for instance, from Stratis Myrivilis’s book Life in the Tomb (about which Ayrton unblushingly says, “He was never one to beat around the bush, and his message comes across loud and clear – but a foot wrong and you end up in the shit”); we get something from Liviu Rebreanu’s 1922’s The Forest of the Hanged, something from the Hungarian writer Milos Crnjankski, and something from the great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza’s 1922 short story collection, Hrvatski bog Mars. Yes, there’s the obligatory bit from Hasek’s great satire The Good Soldier Svejk (complete with illustrations), but theres’s also an excerpt from The Forbidden Zone by the now-forgotten but equally-great Mary Borden, who imbued her work with her experiences caring for the wounded:
We conspire against his right to die. We experiment with his bones, his muscles, his sinews, his blood. We dig into the yawning mouths of his wounds. Helpless openings, they let us into the secret places of his body. We plunge deep into his body. We make discoveries within his body. To the shame of the havoc of his limbs we add the insult of our curiosity and the curse of our purpose, the purpose to remake him. We lay odds on his chances of escape, and we combat the death, his Saviour.
Also extremely welcome here is a small portion of James Hanley’s utterly stark 1931 The German Prisoner (published in the same year as his quietly harrowing novella The Boy), in which an Irish and a British soldier, huddling in a fog-bound foxhole, have essentially lost their minds by the time a ragged but beautiful German soldier stumbles into their midst begging to surrender. The two Allies savagely beat the boy, sodomize him, kill him, and despoil his corpse while the reader sits frozen in horror – and then come the rationalizations, which are, if anything, even harder to endure. “That bastard lying here is the cause of all this,” one of the soldiers whines:
And piece by piece and thread by thread I gathered up all the inconveniences. All the actions, rebuffs, threats, fatigues, cold nights, lice, toothaches, forced absence from women, nights in trenches up to your knees in mud. Burial parties, mopping-up parties, dead horses, heaps of stale shite, heads, balls, brains, everywhere. All those things. I made the case against him. Now I ask you. Why should he live?
Ayrton’s No Man’s Land is hard reading almost from start to finish (our editor has wisely left out poetry), but by its final pages it’s achieved the near-impossible feat of making the First World War’s horrors feel freshly, agonizingly new.