< Reinterpreting War


Friday, July 02, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vasily Grossman covered the Eastern Front of World War II for the Soviet Union and fictionalized his reporting as the novel Life and Fate. Curzio Malaparte covered the Eastern Front for the Axis Powers and fictionalized his reporting as the novel Kaputt. These two, you might say, opposite accounts of the same part of the same war, both a mix of journalism and imagination, were the subject of a New York University panel discussion late last year. I asked veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges, who was on the panel, why Vasily Grossman chose to fictionalize a war that he'd witnessed with his own eyes.

CHRIS HEDGES: Because, like Tolstoy, he was trying to create an epic and to step beyond what could be empirically measured and talk about those powerful non-rational forces - fear, rage, love - in the midst of this huge backdrop which was World War II. And to examine human nature, I think, is very difficult when one is constrained by what you see and what you hear, by fact.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: One chapter that you think is illustrative of what Grossman was trying to do begins with German prisoners carrying Russian corpses up from the cellar of a building.

NARRATOR: “She felt in the pocket of her jacket for a piece of bread that had been given to her the evening before by a soldier. She held it out to the German officer and said, ‘There. Have something to eat.’ Afterwards, she was unable to understand what had happened to her, why she had done this.”

CHRIS HEDGES: There were moments, even in the war itself, when these barriers between two groups broke down. And Grossman meditates on this at the end of the book, that it’s not so much a battle of good and evil, but the battle between a great evil that is seeking to crush a small kernel of human kindness. The pathos even in the enemy that is demonized makes, I think, the novel particularly rich, and something that he certainly could not do as a Soviet correspondent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a, a letter in the book written by a mother in the ghetto, aware that trenches are being dug nearby for the mass execution of the inhabitants of the ghetto, and she’s writing a final goodbye to her son. Now, Grossman’s mother was killed by the Nazis. She never got a chance to say goodbye. Is he merely enacting this as a way to mitigate his own grief?

CHRIS HEDGES: This chapter, The Last Letter, I think gets to the importance of empathetic imagination, that ability, which he had, to step inside his mother’s head, to see the world from her eyes, to say goodbye to her only son. And, as you correctly point out, there was no communication on the eve of his mother’s death. She was herded into a ghetto and executed with the other Jews in her town. And yet, he is able to present her letter goodbye.

NARRATOR: “Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I'd expected to feel horror. But just imagine, I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle pen. Don't think it’s because I'm a born slave. No. No. It’s because everyone around me shares my fate. Now, people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me.”

CHRIS HEDGES: It is in many ways a letter not just from his mother to him but from millions of mothers who were murdered to their children.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Grossman talks about obedience, the obedience of the victims and of the perpetrators of the violence. He says that they're both derived from the instinct for self-preservation. I know you really like this passage. Why do you think it’s so critical?

CHRIS HEDGES: Because having been a war correspondent and lived in climates of extreme violence and fear, to stand up against those forces is almost a willful act of suicide. And I was at one point a prisoner in Iraq, captured in the first Gulf War by the Republican Guard. Every move that you make, every word that you utter is calculated to ensure your own survival and not to enrage those who have the power of life and death in front of you. This is a human reality that Grossman understood and that is often not grasped by people who have not been in similar situations.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's contrast the way that Grossman blended fact and fiction with what Curzio Malaparte did in his novel, Kaputt, which many people regard as a masterpiece, and you think not so much. How was he blending fact and fiction that was different from the way Grossman did?

CHRIS HEDGES: Malaparte veers in that long tradition of war pornography. It’s voyeurism. He doesn't have the moral voice that Grossman has. He seeks the extreme, the outrageous. I mean, just to pick one small scene, there’s a moment when he is in the office of the Croatian dictator.

NARRATOR: “Ante Pavelic removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said, smiling, ‘It is a present from my loyal Ustashis. Forty pounds of human eyes!’”

CHRIS HEDGES: I deeply detest the Malapartes of the world because they write about war through the lens of the powerful, not through the eyes of the soldiers on the front line who suffer, bleed and die. Unlike Grossman, he never sees combat. He spends long passages at lavish dinners with the Nazi governor of Poland, writing witty dialogues in which, of course, he always gets the better of whoever it is he is speaking with. It is a bizarre kind of recounting of war as a spectator sport.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a passage in Kaputt where he describes, quote, “The ghastly cold of that winter had the strangest consequences. Thousands and thousands of soldiers had lost their limbs. Thousands and thousands had their ears, their noses, their fingers and their sexual organs ripped off by frost. Many had lost their eyelids. Singed by the cold, the eyelid drops off like a piece of dead skin.”

CHRIS HEDGES: You pick a passage that’s tough because, on the one hand, he talks about the inevitable maiming, physical maiming of war, which is important for outsiders to understand. On the other hand, he builds repeatedly on these sort of macabre, emotionally-mined scenes so that the cumulative effect is a kind of grotesque freak show. And I'm not opposed to the description, per se. The problem is that Malaparte never gets beyond it, to the human passions and darkness that go into unleashing violence at that level.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, do you think that war is some kind of special case? It seems like time and time again, from the Greeks to the present day, we try to make sense of war ultimately by fictionalizing it.

CHRIS HEDGES: I think to struggle with the most powerful forces in human life, fiction is a better medium. I think that somehow it’s the mystery itself, the awe that comes when one contemplates existence, that great, great writers like Grossman can, within the sweep of a great narrative, portray for us that elude even very talented nonfiction writers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, thank you very much.

CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent and author of, among other books, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.