Comments Off on Top 10 books about the human cost of war | Maaza Mengiste | Books | The Guardian

Top 10 books about the human cost of war | Maaza Mengiste | Books | The Guardian

Top 10 books about the human cost of war | Maaza Mengiste | Books | The Guardian

From Homer to Alexievich: top 10 books about the human cost of war

The novelist explains how literature illuminates soldiers’ experience, and how it helped her depict the women who fought Mussolini in Ethiopia

Growing up with the stories of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and Ethiopia’s eventual victory, I did not need much prodding to imagine the conflict. On one side: white-clad Ethiopian soldiers racing down rugged hills with spears or outdated rifles to confront rows of modern artillery. On the other: steely-eyed Italian troops waiting with cannon and tanks, unaware that courage could defeat bullets.

It was not until a revolution tore my country apart that I began to understand how war could render decent people unrecognisable. Only when I had felt real terror did I begin to comprehend the many ways that conflict can devour us without spilling a drop of blood.

When I sat down to begin researching my novel The Shadow King – tracing the forgotten history of the women who took up arms against the Italian invasion – I challenged myself to break through my naive ideas of the war. Those early images of fearless warriors had comforted me in my American life. In them, I could rest easy. They defined how I should behave in the face of any enemy.

As I started to write, my first instinct was to reach for books; I wanted the guidance of other writers, other minds. Some, such as the Iliad, were old favourites; others were relatively new. Each of those that I’ve listed below provided me with a vocabulary to conceive anew what it means to be a soldier, to be a woman, to be in conflict with a force greater than oneself.

1. The Iliad by Homer
A story about the consequences of aggression and arrogance, about rage and vengeance and fate. In one of the most powerful scenes, the aged Priam, king of Troy, crosses the battle lines to ask Achilles for the body of his son, Hector, whom Achilles has killed. The first time I read the moment when Priam bends to kiss Achilles’ hand, I physically recoiled from that anguished display of love and humility. Achilles cries, seeing in old Priam an image of his own father, who will soon be grieving the loss of his son, too. The scene sets out war’s cycle of grief, revenge and love: these are the energies that raise this from a simple war story into a profound epic.

2. The Iliad or the Poem of Force by Simone Weil
Only 24 pages, but this is packed with ideas that use Homer to illuminate modern questions about violence, and where moments of grace may exist. Written in 1939-40 during the fall of France to the Nazis, Weil’s essay asks us to look beyond Homer’s leading characters and focus instead on the real central figure in the epic. Force, she says, taken to its extreme, turns a human being into a corpse. It makes a thing out of him, worthless after it has died. But she also extends that thought to include the ways that those who inflict force are themselves dehumanised. The questions Weil asks have led me to more questions about what remains after a life is lost. A text I return to again and again.

Challenging our gaze … photo from Evidence by Diana Matar

Challenging our gaze … a photo from Evidence by Diana Matar. Photograph: Diana Matar/Schilt Publishing

3. Evidence by Diana Matar
How do sites of violence retain traces of the lives lost there? In 2012, after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Matar travelled to Libya. There, she photographed places where human-rights violations had taken place. Six years in the making, this photobook is a haunting meditation on ways to see what could have remained invisible. Matar’s photography challenges our gaze to see beyond the immediate void. If Weil contends that extreme force turns a human being into a thing, Matar reminds us of what continues to live.

4. Trieste by Daša Drndić
Haya Tedeschi waits to meet her son, stolen from her more than 60 years ago during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Drndić’s majestic and raging novel uses this simple premise to lead us into some of the darkest realities of the second world war. Blending storytelling with historical documents, photographs, and excerpts from the Nuremberg trials, the book turns an uncompromising gaze on the cruelty of war. Midway through, there is a list of 9,000 names of Jews in Italy who were murdered by the Nazis. “Behind every name there is a story,” Drndić writes.

5. The Ethiopian War: 1935-1941 by Angelo Del Boca
Del Boca’s history of the Italian invasion uses interviews, testimonies and visits to key battle sites to provide a fascinating window into a brutal war that many soon forgot. The book confronts Italy’s colonial ambitions, and Del Boca sets out damning information about the country’s war crimes. At the same time, he is sensitive to the lives lost on both sides, and the enduring damage done.

6. The Conscript by Gebreyesus Hailu (translated by Ghirmai Negash)
Written in 1927 by Eritrean novelist Gebreyesus Hailu and published in 1950, The Conscript is one of the earliest novels written in an African language. It is also one of the most powerful and unflinching accounts of Italy’s brutal campaign in Libya. The book follows Tuquabo, an Ascari, who soon realises his complicated, morally fraught position as someone under colonial rule himself imposing it on Libyan. Beautifully written and devastatingly unflinching in its depiction of fascist Italy’s racism and disregard for its African military force, this is a classic and a must-read.

Soviet guerrillas armed with rifles and bayonets during the second world war.

Soviet guerrillas armed with rifles and bayonets during the second world war. Photograph: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

7. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
For this book, Alexievich collected first-person accounts from more than 200 Soviet women who fought during the second world war. Symphonic in scope, she skips easy platitudes about what war looks like from a woman’s perspective. The world, Alexievich has said, is a chorus of “individual voices” and she sets out to chronicle with relentless precision these unheard stories. It is not only an uncompromising testament to the sacrifices women have made in the name of so much that war devours, it casts a steady eye on what conflict demands of everyone it touches.

8. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky)
Erpenbeck’s conceptually stunning, elegiac novel revolves around a house in Brandenburg Forest. Its grounds are tended to by a faithful gardener as the years pass and various occupants move in and out. Revolving around the rise of Nazism in Germany and the eventual arrival of the Soviets, characters coming through the house live through some of the century’s most catastrophic events. Erpenbeck’s words, sensitively translated by Susan Bernofsky, provide a window into larger questions about memory, violence, complicity and atonement.

9. The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon
What responsibility do the living have to the dead? Who matters most? These questions rest at the centre of Antoon’s haunting novel, set during the Iraq war. Antoon also considers what it means to be an artist in times of conflict. Inspired by the work of Giacometti, the central character, Jawad, gives up his aspirations to become an artist and becomes a mghassilchi, or “corpse washer”. Through Jawad, Antoon reckons with the costs that war exacts on those who have survived and must now find a way to get up and move forward.

10. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
Set near the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2001, Forna’s gripping novel examines its aftermath in the lives of her characters. The novel opens with a dying man telling a story about a past love, before the narrative branches into other voices counting the many ways that violence devastates a human being. Forna asks us to look at her characters and see not deadened beings but people who, in spite of their losses, insist on the possibilities of a new existence.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste is published by Canongate. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

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