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Critical Review by Peter Parker
SOURCE: "The War That Never Becomes the Past," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4823, September 8, 1995, pp. 4-5.
Parker is English nonfiction writer and biographer. In the following review of The Ghost Road, he remarks on the distinctive qualities of Barker's trilogy and praises her blending of fiction and historical fact.
As we approach the millennium, the pall cast across our century by the First World War shows no sign of lifting. In spite of later and bloodier conflicts, in spite of the gradual dilution of public ceremonies of remembrance, in spite of the fact that almost everyone who fought in the war has now died, the Great War for Civilization (as it was dubbed in a more innocent age) continues to haunt the collective imagination. A number of fine modern novels have been written about the war: Susan Hill's Strange Meeting (1971), Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon (1974), Timothy Findley's The Wars (1977) and William Boyd's An Ice-Cream War (1988); and the critical and popular success of Sebastian Faulks's lumbering Birdsong (1993) is evidence of a continuing—and undiscriminating—appetite for such fiction.
The insistence with which the war tugs at our consciousness is acknowledged by Pat Barker in her observation that: "The Somme is like the Holocaust. It revealed things we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It never becomes the past." There is an echo here of Siegfried Sassoon, whose entire life was haunted by his experiences in the war, and who—indulging his "queer craving to revisit the past and give the modern world the slip"—spent twenty years trying to come to terms with them in two autobiographical trilogies. It is appropriate, therefore, that Sassoon should occupy a central place in Regeneration (1991), the first volume of Barker's war trilogy, which opens in July 1917 with his arrival at Craiglockhart War Hospital after he had made his celebrated "Soldier's Declaration" against the conduct of the war. It was here that Sassoon was treated by W.H.R. Rivers, a neurologist and anthropologist who was serving with the RAMC. Rivers (1864–1922) is a fascinating figure whose influence extended far beyond medical circles and can be traced in the work of Robert Graves, who met him through Sassoon (and who makes a nicely judged cameo appearance in Regeneration), and W.H. Auden, whose doctor father admired Rivers and whose Berlin associate John Layard had been one of Rivers's anthropological colleagues. Rivers gradually emerges as the central historical figure in the trilogy, his experiences counterpointed by those of a fictional patient, Billy Prior.
It is Prior as much as Sassoon who challenges Rivers's beliefs and assumptions, and he does so without Sassoon's gentlemanly restraint. A young second lieutenant of northern, working class origins, Prior first appears in the trilogy as a mute, struck dumb by what Rivers would diagnose in a famous paper published in the Lancet in 1918 as "The Repression of War Experience". It was Rivers's contention that "neuraesthenia", a blanket term used to describe various sorts of battle trauma, might perhaps be triggered by some particularly dreadful incident, but that it was caused by prolonged exposure to what would sometimes become quite literally unspeakable conditions. The repression of such experiences led to mental breakdown, and Rivers's job was to get his patients to recall and confront what had happened to them.
One of the things that sets Barker's trilogy apart from most recent novels about the war is that it reaches beyond a meticulously researched account of life in the trenches, beyond the historical irony so well deployed by Sassoon and so frequently and crudely exploited since, right into the dark heart of the matter. In the preface to his classic novel of the Western Front, The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), Frederic Manning wrote: "War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity." Barker's novels investigate what it is to be human, and what is demanded of those humans whom circumstances oblige to pursue that peculiar activity.
"Regeneration" may be defined as a process of "moral, spiritual, or physical renewal or invigoration", which is what many people thought the war represented for the nation. (Parallels with the Falklands War insistently present themselves here, as they do elsewhere in the trilogy.) Regeneration is also what the army expects Rivers to achieve with his traumatized patients. Rivers is acutely aware that, whereas a civilian doctor cures his patient in order to send him out into life again, he "cures" his in order to send them back into battle and probable death, and the book's title is cruelly ironic. Furthermore, this treatment goes against everything that society and the war has demanded of men, and is as hazardous for the doctor as it is for his patients:
He was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing. They'd been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was part of that same system, even perhaps a rather extreme product. Certainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the constant theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and to let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on.
The title also refers more specifically to an experiment to which Rivers's friend and colleague Henry Head subjected himself before the war. "The nerve supplying Head's forearm had been severed and sutured, and then over a period of five years they had traced the process of regeneration." Head's use of himself as a guinea-pig recalls The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a passage from which is used as the epigraph to the second volume in Barker's trilogy, The Eye in the Door (1993): "It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…." This duality is one of the principal themes of Barker's trilogy, most notably embodied by Prior, who suffers from prolonged blackouts, during which the sadistic impulses he normally manages to suppress (except during dreams of battle, from which he wakes ejaculating) come to the fore. Bisexual, a "temporary gentleman", now working in intelligence, supposedly against pacifist friends, Prior inhabits a sexual, social and moral no man's land. He is merely an extreme example of the "split personality", however; equally divided—between recklessly brave soldier and bitter, outspoken pacifist—is Sassoon; while the officers Rivers treats have been trained to suppress all human instincts in order to turn themselves into killing machines, but at the same time are expected to take on a paternal role in looking after the men under their command.
The doctors, too, are split between the compassion they feel for their patients as suffering humans and the objective interest in them as medical cases. It transpires that Rivers himself shares more with his patients than they might at first suppose. As a child, he suffered from a disabling stammer, which he has managed to control, and a stammer is one of the most prominent symptoms among the men at Craiglockhart. Having regained his speech, Prior insists that the demarcation between doctor and patients is not at all clear, and the trilogy is partly about Rivers's own attempts to reintegrate his fragmented personality.
The Ghost Road amply fulfils the high expectations raised by its predecessors. The narrative is divided equally between Rivers, now at a hospital in London, and Prior, who is returning to the line with another Craiglockhart alumnus, Wilfred Owen. Drowsing through a bout of Spanish flu, Rivers recalls his earlier incarnation as an anthropologist doing field research among a community of former head-hunters on an island in the South Pacific. Gradually parallels arise between his encounters with these "savages", to whom "the language of introspection was simply not available", and his dealings with his "civilized" patients, in whom introspection has been ruthlessly suppressed by upbringing, education and military training. "Look at us", Prior writes in his diary. "We don't remember, we don't feel, we don't think—at least not beyond the confines of our job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror." Rivers too comes to question the very notion of civilization, that intangible thing for which the war is purportedly being fought. Observing the behaviour of his principal native informant towards a man who is dying, he notes that: "Even Njiru who, within the framework of his culture, was a compassionate man (and we can none of us claim more, Rivers thought), seemed to feel, not indifference or contempt exactly, but that Mbuko had become merely a problem to be solved." This prefigures a terrible scene towards the end of the novel, just as the island's "stone ghosts … erected as memorials to men who died and whose bodies could not be brought home" inescapably suggest the row upon row of headstones that will spring up in the war cemeteries of the Western Front. The ghosts of dead warriors, which play an important part in the culture of the Melanesians, are linked to those which appear to the traumatized Sassoon. Rivers's terrifying experience in a cave thronged with bats makes him aware simultaneously of the common humanity he shares with the islanders and the sheer vulnerability—"the sense of being unshelled"—that is a principal feature of humanity, one which will be highlighted by the war. Holding a skull, Rivers thinks: "This blown eggshell had contained the only product of the forces of evolution capable of understanding its own origins"; but he also knows that this, "the object of highest value in the world", probably ended up in the island's skull house as the result of a murderous raid, and this too looks forward to the murderous raids of his own war and his attempts to repair the damage done to such fragile receptacles by bullets and high explosives. The trilogy's final, hallucinatory, page, on which these two apparently distant and disparate worlds come together, is quite extraordinarily moving.
Arnold Bennett wrote that one of Rivers's most striking qualities was a "gift of co-ordinating apparently unrelated facts". This is a gift Barker shares, and the historical framework of the trilogy, far from being constricting, allows her to make all sorts of connections between social, sexual and political dissent, particularly in The Eye in the Door, which features the notorious "Cult of the Clitoris" libel case of 1918 and a soldier with the suggestively Forsterian name of Scudder. Fact and fiction are so skillfully interwoven that one is never sure where one ends and the other begins. What seems at first a relatively straightforward and tightly controlled narrative gradually and spectacularly unfurls in the reader's mind.
The presentation of Sassoon and Rivers is wholly convincing, while Billy Prior, who carries with him a great deal of symbolic and representative freight, is never less than a fully realized character. Witty, alert and vibrantly alive, his sexuality uninhibited and unashamed, he is a positive life force amidst so much death and destruction, a point emphasized by graphic and extremely well-written descriptions of his couplings with both men and women. Prior is also valuable as a device for driving the narrative onwards. The difficulty with using historical figures is that the reader knows in advance how the story will end: as The Ghost Road moves towards its bloody conclusion at the Sambre-Oise Canal in November 1918, we are only too aware of what will happen to Owen—dispatched here in a sentence—but we do not know, though by now we genuinely care, what will happen to Prior.
The Ghost Road is a startlingly good novel in its own right. With the other two volumes of the trilogy, it forms one of the richest and most rewarding works of fiction of recent times. Intricately plotted, beautifully written, skillfully assembled, tender, horrifying and funny, it lives on in the imagination, like the war it so imaginatively and so intelligently explores.
This section contains 2,050 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)