I mentioned in March that I’d read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and that I knew that I’d made notes at the time. I never found them. They may, of course, have been in one of the two notebooks I lost over the last few months. I know from discussions with others who have read it that views about it are not always the same as mine. In fact several people couldn’t finish it; not because it was a bad novel but because they detested the realism of the images it portrayed.
To me the plot, actually the plots, involving all the usual suspects in a war novel – love, sex, hatred and violence only scratch the surface – is almost irrelevant to the impact the book had on me.
I was trying to recall the plots around which the novel is woven and the fact that I managed to do so says more for the plot than it does for my memory. For me, however, what I remember was the raw emotion and detail in which the horrors of life in the trenches and, worse still, the tunnels under the trenches, is described. My imagination is not good but I didn’t need it to feel as though I was there with the narrator in hell. I found it even worse when I realised that so many people whom I had known, and know, experienced that and never mentioned it. I understood why some people such as my school teachers who had been in the trenches were as they were.
This book is not an easy read. To me, however, it had a greater impact than almost any other book I can recall. Somehow the horrors of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which I read in two different translations I enjoyed it so much, were unreal in comparison. But I was much younger then! If I were to compile a ‘must be read’ list then this book would be very near the top.
We are contemptuous of gunfire, but we have lost the power to be afraid. Shells will fall on the reserve lines and we will not stop talking. There is still blood though no on sees. A boy lay without legs where the men took their tea from the cooker. They stepped over him.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of out hearts and no words will reach us.