Thursday, October 14, 2010
Matterhorn: one of the best novels I've ever read
During a lull in combat in the Viet Nam jungle, a white Marine officer and an African/American subordinate attempt to have a frank discussion of race. The black Marine asks if anyone who has not been there in the bush fighting this war can really understand what it's like, and the officer admits that he doesn't think so. Well, there's no way you can ever understand what it's like to be black in America either, the subordinate says to the white officer.
I was never in the armed services much less in action during the Viet Nam War, so there's no way I can really understand what it was like. Reading this novel, however, is about as close as I could come to having a real sense of that experience. Whether at war or peace, humans act the way humans act, and the author Karl Marlantes' scenes ring true. Men act with love and hate, with wisdom and stupidity, and with courage and dishonor. Organizations are organizations, and decisions are based on perceptions at the top whether those perceptions are valid or not. But when decisions are wrong in the corporate world money is lost whereas when decisions are wrong in war lives are lost.
After I finished this 600 page book, I went aback and reread parts, the first time I've done that in years. I did so less so to replay the action but to zero in on various characters which Marlantes vividly creates in all their complexity and to decide with which of them I most identify. It many ways it was a black Marine from the rural Deep South. He was deep smart rather than fast smart, as another character described him, and fast smart was better in their situation. I sometimes have thought that I might not have done well in that war because I too see myself as deep rather than fast smart. Religion was important to the black Marine even though he struggled with his Christianity in the face of the suffering he saw and felt.
The Marines ponder the nature of good and evil, the arbitrariness of life and death while they also hunger for women who are, of course, totally absent. Some of these men die as virgins without ever having experienced the sexual love of a woman. And yes, some scenes are gory and unpleasant, but to me getting through them was worthwhile.
The author was a Marine combat veteran of the Viet Nam war who was highly decorated for valor. This is the only book he has written and he spent 30 years writing it. I'm glad he did.