Saturday, July 10, 2010

Page 28: Matterhorn

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes should be a Pulitzer Prize book.  True, I am not a literary genius or review books for a living, but I think I have read enough quality fiction in my life to recognize the great ones.  This is a great one.

Another of the great novels, in my opinion, about war was The Killer Angels that dealt with the Battle of Gettysburg from the Southern point of view.  Matterhorn is about a different war, but one that many of us are able to identify with since it was our generation's war.  No matter how you felt about the Vietnam War, you cannot help but be moved by this book.   

Karl Marlantes is a decorated veteran of the war and began this book thirty years ago.  As many reviewers of the book have said, it is well worth the wait. Speaking of reviews, as usual, I want to give you two of them.  The first is by Mark Bowden the author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. 

"Matterhorn is a great novel. There have been some very good novels about the Vietnam War, but this is the first great one, and I doubt it will ever be surpassed. Karl Marlantes overlooks no part of the experience, large or small, from a terrified soldier pondering the nature of good and evil, to the feel and smell of wet earth against scorched skin as a man tries to press himself into the ground to escape withering fire. Here is story-telling so authentic, so moving and so intense, so relentlessly dramatic, that there were times I wasn’t sure I could stand to turn the page. As with the best fiction, I was sad to reach the end.
The wrenching combat in Matterhorn is ultimately pointless; the marines know they are fighting a losing battle in the long run. Bravo Company carves out a fortress on the top of the hill so named, one of countless low, jungle-coated mountains near the border of Laos, only to be ordered to abandon it when they are done. After the enemy claims the hill’s deep bunkers and carefully constructed fields of fire, the company is ordered to take it back, to assault their own fortifications. They do so with devastating consequences, only to be ordered in the end to abandon Matterhorn once again.
Against this backdrop of murderous futility, Marlantes’ memorable collection of marines is pushed to its limits and beyond. As the deaths and casualties mount, the men display bravery and cowardice, ferocity and timidity, conviction and doubt, hatred and love, intelligence and stupidity. Often these opposites are contained in the same person, especially in the book’s compelling main character, Second Lt. Waino Mellas. As Mellas and his men struggle to overcome impossible barriers of landscape, they struggle to overcome similarly impossible barriers between each other, barriers of race and class and rank. Survival forces them to cling to each other and trust each other and ultimately love each other. There has never been a more realistic portrait or eloquent tribute to the nobility of men under fire, and never a more damning portrait of a war that ground them cruelly underfoot for no good reason.
Marlantes brilliantly captures the way combat morphs into clean abstraction as fateful decisions move up the chain of command, further and further away from the actual killing and dying. But he is too good a novelist to paint easy villains. His commanders make brave decisions and stupid ones. High and low there is the same mix of cowardice and bravery, ambition and selflessness, ineptitude and competence.
There are passages in this book that are as good as anything I have ever read. This one comes late in the story, when the main character, Mellas, has endured much, has killed and also confronted the immediate likelihood of his own death, and has digested the absurdity of his mission: "He asked for nothing now, nor did he wonder if he had been good or bad. Such concepts were all part of the joke he’d just discovered. He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in that cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God. Then he cried, tears and snot mixing together as they streamed down his face, but his cries were the rage and hurt of a newborn child, at last, however roughly, being taken from the womb."
Vladimir Nabokov once said that the greatest books are those you read not just with your heart or your mind, but with your spine. This is one for the spine." --Mark Bowden

Here is the review from Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. "Thirty years in the making, Marlantes's epic debut is a dense, vivid narrative spanning many months in the lives of American troops in Vietnam as they trudge across enemy lines, encountering danger from opposing forces as well as on their home turf. Marine lieutenant and platoon commander Waino Mellas is braving a 13-month tour in Quang-Tri province, where he is assigned to a fire-support base and befriends Hawke, older at 22; both learn about life, loss, and the horrors of war. Jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals wreak havoc as brigade members face punishing combat and grapple with bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris. A decorated Vietnam veteran, the author clearly understands his playing field (including military jargon that can get lost in translation), and by examining both the internal and external struggles of the battalion, he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences. Marlantes's debut may be daunting in length, but it remains a grand, distinctive accomplishment." (Apr.) 
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My goal in writing this blog is to put some books out there I hope people will like.  I could write several paragraphs about why I think this book is so great, but I think the two reviews I have included above do the job quite well.  Don't miss out on this book.  It is a great one.   

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