Tuesday 21 November 2017

A multi-perspective take on Iraq war that has philosophical heft

Fiction: Spoils, Brian Van Reet, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 255 pages, €17.50

Ring of truth: Van Reet served in Iraq
Ring of truth: Van Reet served in Iraq
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

With echoes of hit TV shows and movies from Homeland to Hurt Locker, Brian Van Reet's debut works equally well as a geopolitical action-thriller and a literary novel. Set during the early phase of the Iraq war, in 2003, Spoils is quite short and briskly paced, hurtling to a genuinely exciting climax.

But it also carries a philosophical heft and emotional wallop that separates it from Robert Ludlum-style entertainments. Spoils is beautifully written, too: Van Reet has a way of capturing the essential nature of things in just a few words, expressive but tightly wound.

And - unsurprisingly, given he served in the US army during the Iraq conflict - it all rings very true. This is war, the blood-smeared truth, every bit as chaotic and nightmarish as you'd imagine.

Van Reet captures the tactile sensations of combat - the smells, the sounds, the physical discomfort and mental strain - so sharply that the reader feels, at times, as if you're strapped into that tank, or bound in that underground prison cell, alongside fictional characters. And the way they talk, these US soldiers with their telegrammatic argot of codes and catchphrases: roger, copy, blue two, what's your 20, over.

Within a few pages of Spoils, it seems to be all over for Cassandra Wigheard. She's 19, a "specialist" - a rank above private - and, along with fellow specialist Crump and their officer McGinnis, has been captured by jihadists.

The book shifts perspective several times, from Cassandra's story (told third-person) to the first-person narratives of another grunt, Sleed, and a jihadist called Abu al-Hool. This translates as "The Father of Dread" - all these mujahideen give themselves a nom du guerre. Interestingly, though, he's not quite as bad as the name suggests.

Scion of a privileged Cairo family, he turned to Holy War as a young man, in Afghanistan. Now he's older, self-doubting, wiped-out, bedevilled by regrets about the death of his son in Chechnya.

But Abu al-Hool is relatively decent, at least as much as can be said of someone happy to kill for his god. He believes in "honourable" warfare, not the new, more brutal tactics of 21st century jihadists - a videotaped beheading is the catalyst for drastic action - and feels vaguely uneasy that one of their hostages is a woman.

Cassandra, meanwhile, is gay, tough, honest. She was impatient with her humdrum life and wanted to do something invigorating and meaningful. She's brave, willing to kill and risk dying. But, in contrast to the mujahideen - especially the unctuous, despicable leader Dr Walid - she loves life more than death.

That's the main thematic thrust of Spoils, I felt, explored as the narrative rattles to a nerve-shredding will-she -be-rescued denouement. The author is very fair-minded towards both sides (or rather, many: US forces and allies, local insurgents, foreign jihadists, misfortunate Iraqis caught in the middle).

He explains why men become terrorists and commit atrocities; he doesn't hide from the other side's potential for callousness and venality. He examines the political currents that led to this, and how sometimes, choices are limited.

Yet it's hard to avoid the conclusion that these people are so far removed from us, culturally, socially and ideologically, they could be from Jupiter. One scene - where Cassandra's menstruation is greeted with such visceral horror by the jihadists that it'd be funny if it wasn't so profoundly weird - shows the gigantic chasm between them and us. (Not just us, of course: Asian, African, South American, anybody.)

Is it unbridgeable? Perhaps not. Cassandra forges a friendship of sorts with a young recruit; al-Hool, as mentioned, is not without redeeming qualities. Still, there's no getting away from it: these men are violent, misogynist, racist…insane, by any reasonable standard. It's hard to see common ground.

Killing in defence of your people is one thing; rape and slavery and beheadings and all the other grand horrors of jihad are quite another.

The book fades out on a near-dreamlike note, musing on how we can never know eternity because "eternity exists only in relation to its inconceivability…you never really reach the moment." It reads like a Buddhist refrain in reverse, a mantra of disappointment. A suitably oblique ending to an excellent novel that seeks deeper truths, even as its plot kicks like the recoil of an assault rifle.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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