Reviewing Anatomy of a Soldier is something I have been postponing for months. Harry Parker’s first novel is a real little gem that I’m afraid to damage with a clumsy review. Rarely have I read something so delicately balanced between the horror of war and the poetry of its telling. The story is at times appalling, confusing, sickening, upsetting, but the writing will keep you entranced throughout by exalting the reality it depicts.
Let’s try and start with the beginning. Harry Parker is a new name in the literary world and I hope he will gratify us with many books. Before dedicating part of his life to writing, Harry Parker was a soldier in the British army, and this first novel is a fictive autobiography.
The great originality of the novel lies in its focalisation. One could almost say it is a fictive biographysince it is told from the point of view of the objects that surround Tom Barnes, a young British captain who goes on a mission in a hot, remote and unidentified country. As he pointed out at the Assises Internationales du Roman in June, distance proved necessary for the budding writer to process and tell his story, since the first person didn’t feel right when he tried it. Even with this distanciation process, Parker said he was sometimes overcome by the violence and the shock of memories.
For Anatomy of a Soldier tells the story of how Captain Tom Barnes lost his legs, and how he recovered from this loss, refusing to be identified by this tragedy.
This anatomy is fragmented, I’d almost write “dissected”, into forty-five chapters, each giving voice to a different object that either addresses a “you” or describes the activities and surroundings of a “he”. Captain Tom Barnes is thus seen mostly from the outside, sometimes from the inside (sometimes literally inside…), by all the objects that accompany him during his mission, his long hospitalisation, his reeducation and the beginning of his new life. Much like the soldier who relearns to keep his balance and walk, the reader is constantly thrown off balance: s/he has to adapt and observe the tiniest details in order to understand which object is talking, where the scene takes place, and when. However, the use of this technique also results in a feeling of familiarity with the main character whose intimacy, nudity and helplessness are coldly depicted by the neutral and indifferent voices of objects. Paradoxically, this narrative neutrality allows for intense emotions, because the “talking objects” merely state facts in which we, sensitive humans, can imagine and project anxiety, shock, despair, struggle, shame, anger, regrets, fear and so many more…
The crux of the story is the explosion that cost the captain his legs. The reader doesn’t have to wait long for the blast since the first chapter, told by a tourniquet (you understand this when it is put to use), describes those life-changing seconds. Opening with the accident, the story then unfolds, moving both forward and backward. Not only do the objects’ voices keep destabilising us, but the timeline of the novel, broken as it is, also plays a role in this sensation of dizziness. Anatomy of a Soldier doesn’t go from point A to point Z in a straight line, it is told through detours, flashbacks, cracks and ruptures in a metaphor of the hectic journey of the character.
However I have mentioned only one aspect of the novel so far. Anatomy of a Soldier is not solely the story of Captain Barnes; it is also the story of the broken friendship of Faridun and Latif, two young boys who share their bicycle and fly kites until an islamist recruits Latif into his rebel group; it tells the story of the struggle of Kushan Hhan, Faridun’s father, who strives to maintain a school open and is trapped in the crossfire between the foreign army and the rebel group; it is also the story of Latif who doesn’t know where justice is and comes across the wrong mentor.
Of course, this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional but it is not deprived of realism for all that. Invited in the intimacy of Faridun’s home, the reader is made aware of the struggles of a young boy who dreams of having fancy sneakers. We are also driven to understand the processes that lead idle and, for some, uneducated, young men to enroll in rebel forces, blinded by the fantasy that they can bend rules dictated by the foreign army, by the longing to belong and to prove themselves and by the venom of their leaders who just intend to use them as canon fodder.
By slowly paving the way to the catastrophe that also strikes the locals, the novel reminds us (if need be) that in war, there are no winners, but most importantly, no villains; only broken and traumatised humans. The only heroes are those who survive and, like Parker, manage not to nourish hatred in spite of the horrors they have witnessed, committed or endured. Parker explained, during the conference in Lyon, that he needed to write “from the other side”, about “the enemy”, in order to re-humanise those who cost him his legs, so as not to dwell in anger and lose himself in hatred. His experience of the war comes down to the fact that “war is the de-humanising thing. When someone is hurt, you have to make sure there is no vengeance in your heart. When I wrote about invented characters, I used my imagination but I wanted them to be real. Writing was re-humanising.” Through the filters of the objects, the coldness of their voice, the distance of their neutrality, Parker succeeds in re-humanising British soldiers and islamist rebels alike, leaving us grieving deeply for wasted lives and lost opportunities.Oh, and for the anecdote, in this article Parker says that he wondered whether he could make someone gag. Spoiler alert: he can.