Book Review: Peace
By Richard Bausch
Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
Richard Bausch is a professional fiction writer—he writes novels and stories and he teaches both—so it was inevitable that at some point he would find a World War II story to tell (books about troubled teenagers and, in the course of time, about old men having affairs with young women will surely prove as inescapable). Peace is this story, a slim and nervewracking novel that does justice to its mighty era by setting its focus on one harrowing sliver of time within it.
Peace is set in Italy, somewhere near Monte Cassino, in 1943, after the Italians have capitulated and the Nazis have occupied the country and are staging a protracted retreat through the mountains designed to inflict as much carnage as possible upon the advancing Allies. Robert Marson is at the center of the novel, a corporal who leads two other American soldiers and one potentially untrustworthy Italian guide on a dangerous reconnaissance beyond the front line. Injury, awful weather, the specter of past disasters, and the omnipresent threat of snipers beset the men, and Bausch is best when evoking the grinding fear and uncertainty that hover over every action they take:
The dark was nearly complete. The possibility existed that the sniper had moved beyond this little square of ground, and so it was necessary to try watching in all directions. Marson turned slowly, looking through the almost useless scope. The sense that the sniper may have got by him fed his terror. And it was terror: a deep, black, nerve-tic distress so pervasive that it was hardly aware of itself. Marson stared out at the night in a freezing, fixed gaze of expectation. The darkness yielded no sound. The wind had died. The air grew colder all the time. The line of trees, left and right, the open lane, all of it seemed to be fading out of existence as light left the sky.
Bausch is a skilled and sensitive writer, though not an exceptionally talented one, so there is a certain indeterminacy in the characterizations and events of Peace that prevent it from providing either the emotional whiplash of William Wharton’s great novel A Midnight Clear or the profound, elegiac beauty of William Woodruff’s work of creative nonfiction Vessel of Sadness (also set around Monte Cassino). Still, this is a worthy, humane novel that is always attuned to the moral as well as physical terrain of the war. The likeable Robert Marson is nearly overwhelmed by despair, but his heroism lies in accepting despair as his lot, because the only alternative is numbness, soullessness: his tragedy Bausch displays admirably.