The Pen And The Sword

War is all around us. It’s on our TVs, it’s in our films, and it’s in our literature. Remembering war and sacrifice is a part of our lives. A hundred years on, Britain still remembers the horrors and casualties of World War One and marks the centenary with displays of respect and remembrance, such as the poppy display at the Tower of London. This November also sees the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolised the end of a very different kind of war. Nine miles of illuminated balloons along the old site of the Berlin Wall signifies the prevalence of remembrance and national memory. War is portrayed and analysed often in literature. However the brutality and sorrow which characterises war, make it surprising that war remains a popular genre of fiction-writing. War novels remain popular simply because reading about past wars helps us to understand them, to emphasise with those who fought in them, and to remember.

By reading about wars of the past, we seek to explore something unknown to us and to question what is important. Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, a classic novel about a man’s experiences in love and war during WWI, brings the memories of the war into the present as the dual narrative depicts both Stephen’s land his descendant’s lives.

A recent trend sees war novels examining moral issues, such as human rights. The Railway Man explores the terrors faced by the prisoners of war on the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. Written by Eric Lomax about his own experiences, The Railway Man tells the story of the horrific consequences when human rights are ignored. The fascination surrounding this novel is derived from the element of reality and honesty evident in the narration. Similarly, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014) looks at the experience of Flanagan’s father on the same railway. The popularity of both of these books reflects society’s curiosity in brutal history and tragedy.

Another trend features the use of a microcosm to analyse war. An engaging story in which this technique is used is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which follows the life of a young girl in Nazi Germany and the impact of war on her life and family. Similarly, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo revitalised the World War One genre by using the perspective of a horse to compare life in pre-war Britain with survival and death on the war front. The use of a microcosm draws the reader further into the story and encourages a stronger empathetic link between the sufferings of the main character and the reader.

Popular fascination with world history, global politics and spies, supports a more modern type of war novel. The spy novels of John Le Carré look at the history of terrorism and at the impact of cold war. His best known piece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy explores the world of spying and sabotage whilst questioning the activities of MI6. Le Carré evaluates the power and impact conflicting national ideologies can have on real people, all the while spinning a dramatic tale of betrayal and intrigue that will hook the reader from the beginning. Recently translated into English, Julia Franck’s novel West encourages the reader to reassess presupposed ideas about Western superiority during the Cold War as the central character, Nelly, leaves East Berlin to find that the West is not all she had hoped for. The book explores the ideology behind the East-West divide which segregated German people and national progress to suggest that war destroys nations far beyond the years in which it rages.

War novels are timeless; the suffering and tragedy explored in these books makes us human, links us all together and teaches us about real sacrifice and tragedy.