Robert Olmstead – Far Bright Star

13May09

(Algonquin Books, Paperback (First Edition), May 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-592-6)

Olmstead Robert_Far Bright Star

 

Set in 1916, ‘Far Bright Star’ follows Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, as he leads an expedition of inexperienced soldiers into the mountains of Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa and bring him to justice. Though he is seasoned at such missions, things go terribly wrong and the patrol is brutally attacked. After witnessing the demise of his troops, Napoleon is left by his captors to die in the desert.

Through him we enter the conflicted mind of a warrior as he tries to survive against all odds, as he seeks to make sense of a lifetime of senseless wars and to reckon with the reasons a man would choose a life on the battlefield.

This is neither a comfortable nor an easy novel to read, but the lyrical, compelling voice pulled me in from the first sentence. That voice grew stronger until, within a couple of pages, even my unfamiliar ears were attuned to the narrator’s drawl and I could hear him as though he were stood next to me.  His story is not told in a conventional manner: the narrative is linear up to the defining, terrifying moment of capture, torture and abandonment, but then it twists and turns alongside the narrator as his experiences traverse the increasingly blurred boundaries between life and death, dream and reality, until past, present and future become inextricably tangled.

This complex unravelling of a consciousness could be interpreted as the representation of a man suffering from post-traumatic disorder (at a time when such a thing was not known to exist), a respected, hardened soldier experiencing one atrocity too many, the axes of physical recovery and mental collapse intersecting and then mirroring one another. Such an analysis offers an oblique look forward at the experiences of soldiers serving both in the First World War (the start of which ends this novel), and, moving forward still further, and in Afghanistan in the present day. Replace Pancho Villa with the Taliban, and you get the same sense of dread-laden and heat-drowned shadow-chasing in a hostile land.

However, the dense, vivid language, the rich, complex imagery hold echoes of magical realism, a sense of the fantastical that is reminiscent of a stripped-down Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its impossibilities, though without his more impenetrable excesses. Perhaps one should simply suspend one’s disbelief and accept the mystical, or perhaps mythological, qualities of the improbable rescue and recovery, and see this as a deeply personal telling of an experience from a man who does things his own way and sees things in a different light to the rest of us. His perception is his reality, and we should accept his translation of it for us.

But the reality he shows us is a bleak and stark analysis of war, in all its brutal, wasteful futility. The language may be evocative, luxurious and poetic, but such language forges a stark, telling contrast between its melodic beauty and the precise, horrific scenes Olmstead lays before us. You will not find here the glamorous, romantic stuff of Hollywood-slick spaghetti westerns, nor the idealised cameraderie and nobility of Zane Grey and Fennimore Cooper. This novel is unflinching in its exposure of the base ugliness, boredom and terror of a war of attrition in a hostile land, of the resigned disgust of soldiers who must carry out the flawed plans of distant political masters whose strategy takes no account of the human cost of their miscalculations. The heat and dust and stench of it seep into you, and, trapped in a web of sensory lyricism, it is impossible to look away and ignore the grisly outrage that concludes the betrayal and destruction of Napoleon’s small troop.

This is not a comfortable novel to read. It is a haunting, disturbing unfolding of a man disintegrating under unbearable pressure, but in a story of contrasts, of language and image, of illusion and reality, of myth and truth, he makes a sort of peace within himself. By submitting himself to war, he allows himself to accept that war has both destroyed and forged his identity and that war gives him life just as much as it threatens that same life. 

It is not an understanding easily grasped, a single reading will not suffice. Detail will catch and nag and draw you back until you move through stunned, mesmerised revulsion to uncomprehending grief to silent acceptance. It is worth the journey to get there. Read it.

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