Thursday, 24 September 2009


It's the winter of 1944, and three American soliders are on patrol in the hills near Cassino, part of the fight against the retreating Germans, who are making the invaders pay for every inch of ground, in the middle of the coldest winter in memory. They are part of a unit whose numbers decrease with each passing day, the last two when a German officer was uncovered in a hay wagon, and shot two men before he too was killed. With him under the hay was a young Italian woman, and Sergeant Glick walked up to her and shot her dead. Later, they come upon an old Italian, and Glock sends three men off with him to go over the hill, to get to the other side, to stop the arguing over whether or not the girl should have died.

Richard Bausch's story is told very well, in simple prose that rarely over-embellishes, but it is, at heart a familiar one, and more familiar in the wake of the river of nostalgia that marks the anniversaries of World War II. The 'lost patrol' story has been reprised many times; even Steven Spielberg tried his hand at it in Saving Private Ryan. I kept thinking I'd seen this story before, in a film that should have been directed by Samuel Fuller, who would have told it in a similar, simple, expressive fashion.

There were elements that seemed out of place; particularly the flashbacks to sunny Palermo, and the too-neatly done Italian boy who helps Corporal Marson, leader of the three-man patrol,
and who serves as a counterpoint to the old man. But the way Bausch builds up the tension, the internal tension between the soldiers, and the way he milks it until it comes down to one decision, is extremely well done. It's a decision that speaks, as the title does, of peace, and it's one that reflects the default position of Americans when they look at themselves at war almost constantly and believe themselves to be decent people at heart. In 1944, that was easier to believe than it is now, and it takes all of Bausch's skill to make that case. What he does best is describe the inner turmoil of each man, and the struggles within themselves, and with each other. It is the wider struggle which seems too familiar, as if appropriated for a backdrop to this moral tale; even the characters themselves seem borrowed from familar models.

Yet within that, what Bausch does very well is reflect the basic humanity of his soldiers, and if his Italian old man is somewhat less well-drawn, it is because he is seen from the perspective of the soldiers, and their limited picture is ours. So when, in the end, an officer who's been out of their experience comes in, and makes a crucial decision of life and death for Marson, we feel, as he does, that he is just a step from going over the line. That is the line that marks the peace of the title from something else, something deeper and longer lasting than just war, but certainly part of war's effect. For Bausch, it is an amplifier, and in this novel which feels like a shorter story, he manages to keep the signal clear, despite the amplification. Which in wartime, is a difficult thing to do. And in art.
Peace by Richard Bausch
Grove Atlantic £12.99 ISBN 9781848870840

1 comment :

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am a great Richard Bausch fan. Hadn't heard about this one.