Thursday, June 7, 2012

War Stories and Secrets in "Triage"

“Forget the dead. The dead don’t need anything from us.”

True, but perhaps we the living need something from the dead. Like answers.

The above quote is spoken by a Kurdish doctor in Scott Anderson’s novel “Triage.” The doctor is in charge of a shanty triage hospital in Northern Iraq during the late 1980s, and an American journalist named Mark has just been delivered to his care. Mark is, to put it bluntly, fucked up. His physical injuries are not life-threatening, but it is clear that he is suffering severe trauma. The link between Mark’s body and his mind has been severed, destroying his ability to experience emotional and physical reactions. He cannot move properly, and he cannot (or will not?) think about what happened to him.

Survivor’s guilt, the self-distancing of those who have seen combat, the power of the subconscious, the horrors of readjusting to society after witnessing violence, these are the elements of many novels and psychology studies. But in “Triage” Anderson delves into these issues in a way that seems totally new… even though the book is now more than ten years old. 

Mark leaves Kurdistan, tries to leave the memories behind, and comes back to New York. His girlfriend Elena notices Mark has changed, physically, emotionally, mentally. And there’s the question of Mark’s long-time journalist partner and friend who has not come back from Kurdistan. Mark doesn’t seem to know what happened to his partner, or at least he doesn’t want to talk about it. Mark’s trauma and self-isolation make him a hard character to get to know, and this could be a problem for some readers. I didn’t know much about Mark in the beginning of the novel, and by the end I’m not sure how much I’ve learned about him. He has a family, spread out over the country, but by the end they’re no less involved in his life than they were in the beginning. He has an apartment and a job, but his future, like many things about him, is unclear.

Luckily for readers looking for interesting characters, the book isn’t really about Mark. This story is much bigger than one fucked-up war photographer’s rehabilitation.

Mark’s girlfriend, Elena, is his bridge to the real world, the reader’s bridge to the real story. Elena struggles to understand Mark, desperately trying to get him to open up about Kurdistan. But Mark seems incapable of confronting what he experienced.

Then the story takes a big turn, as Elena and Mark receive some (unwanted) help. This help comes in the form of Papa Joaquin, Elena’s estranged grandfather. Joaquin worked as a faux psychiatrist for the post-war Franco government in Spain. His job was to consult with fascists who were mentally scarred from the horrors they committed during the war. With no formal training, just a virulent commitment to the cause, Joaquin consoled these men, tried to allay their mental and psychological scars, “purifying” them before sending them back into the world. Joaquin leaves Spain for New York with hopes of reconnecting with his granddaughter and helping Mark recover.

Papa Joaquin is an unrepentant, stubborn fascist, and I want so badly to hate him. It should be easy, but it’s not. In fact, it’s impossible to hate Joaquin. He is too persistent, too dark, too hilarious, and he carries with him a combination of nihilism and duty so bizarre that I can’t help but marvel at him. “No one can make this easier for you,” he says to Mark, “because no one can know how you suffer – not me, not Elena, and not some specialist. Pain is the most private thing in life. If you don’t understand this, if you continue to believe someone else holds a solution, then you will never be cured.”

As the secrets from Joaquin’s long life of terror come out, he is revealed to be a much more complicated man than I’d ever thought.

Anderson’s prose is punchy, raw and sprinkled with poetic insight. I’ve heard some comparisons to Hemingway, and I think they are deserved. The realness of the novel is undeniable. There is no time for melodrama, forced epiphanies, and, as in war, there are no easy answers. Veterans, journalists, psychologists and deep thinkers will find lots of things in this novel to ponder.

And just wait until the ending!

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