Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Brief Review of Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

At the outset of The Iliad, Achilles has withdrawn from the Greek assault on Troy because his commander, Agamemnon, insulted him. This upends Achilles' understanding of how the world works; the courageous are not always rewarded and the powerful are rarely held accountable. At this moment, by stepping outside of what he has understood to be true, Achilles becomes unmoored from his society. It is only near the very end of the poem that the death of Patroclus forces Achilles back into himself; he re-enters the war out of a love for his comrade that resides somewhere beyond thinking, beyond any chain of command.

At it's core, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn is a reframing of this awakening. And while Lieutenant Mellas, the protagonist, is no goddess's son, he comes to Vietnam looking for glory  (instead of concubines and tripods, he imagines a Navy Cross and a seat in Congress). And also like Achilles, his awakening comes late in the story, when his platoon is pinned down during an assault on a North Vietnamese Army position. He sees a way through, but it will require that he hazard his life: 
He ran as he'd never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. He ran because fate had placed him in a position of responsibility and he had accepted the burden. He ran because his self-respect required it. He ran because he loved his friends and this was the only thing he could do to end the madness that was killing and maiming them. 
It is a remarkable moment, one that is earned by Marlantes' careful construction and unerring restraint. For at this point we have followed Mellas and his fledgling military career for more than 450 pages, a great deal of it spent on aimless, frustrated patrols and navigating the careerism of the Marine Corps. This late moment of clarity and desperation works because Marlantes has been unrelenting in his account of the Vietnam War's operational and political confusion; he doesn't spare us the arcana of a Marine officer's life, knowing full well, as one of the characters says, that the truth is not found, but assembled:
"Intelligence, Lieutenant," Simpson went on, "is built up by the fastidious collection of minutiae. You understand that, don't you? It isn't the result of spectacultar finds. It's the result of hard work, constant attention to detail--to minutiae. Mi-nu-tiae."
And though Marlantes tries to guide us through the minutiae with a chart of the chain of command, a detailed map of the operation, and a lengthy glossary of military terminology, the deluge of call signs, equipment, procedures, ranks, titles, and tactics is beyond comprehension. And once Mellas realizes (the reader alongside) that these particulars are not in themselves meaningful, but the minutiae out of which meaning is made, he comes to be himself at last:

It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opening himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. Hil killing that day would not have been evil if the dead soldiers hadn't been loved by mothers, sisters, friends, wives. Mellas understood that in destroying the fabric that linked those people, he had participated in evil, but this evil had hurt him as well. He also understood that his participation in evil had hurt him as well. Being human was the best he could do. Without  man there would be no evil. But there was also no good, nothing moral built over the world of fact. Humans were responsible for it all
Matterhorn is a masterly novel that gives a gripping, immersive account of an unimaginable time while managing, in the end, to transcend it. Time will tell, but the Ape won't be surprised to see it one day join the pantheon of American war writing.

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