August 2014        

Return of the Brute

This is perhaps a good time to look at the first Irish anti-war novel, Liam O’Flaherty’s Return of the Brute.
     When the First World War ended, in 1918, it seemed unimaginable that there could ever be such slaughter again. The arts in particular reflected the sense of exploded bodies and the insanity, a world that had spiralled out of control. Artists, who had often been directly involved in military action, gave eloquent voice to their profound abhorrence of war and to their warning of its utterly destructive nature.
     Liam O’Flaherty adopted the name Bill Ganly (using his mother’s name) to enlist as a volunteer in the British Army in 1915. By 1917 he had become shell-shocked and suffered a trauma that would be with him for the remainder of his life. Arising from his experience of the war he wrote Return of the Brute. It is a major contribution to anti-war world literature.
     Published in 1929, Return of the Brute stands out as a literary masterpiece in many ways. It is a novel without a hero. The men of No. 2 Bombing Section, whose lives in the trenches are at the centre of the novel, never fire a shot at the enemy. There are other features of the novel form that O’Flaherty experiments with, anticipating Beckett. It is imbued with Aran-inspired imagery.
     The character from whose limited viewpoint the reader largely sees the novel’s action is Bill Gunn, a labourer and volunteer, a man of great physical strength, a person who is at times confused but always capable of responding with humanity and compassion. Gunn protects and defends Louis Lamont, another misguided volunteer, little more than a child, defies the military and loses his sanity in the effort.
     Lamont himself is a contender for the title of anti-hero in this unconventional novel, a nineteen-year-old who simply takes no part in any military activity. He sees through the military smokescreen like no other and has a child’s sense for personal survival, seeking protection and a way out of this war.
     The inability of the other characters to grieve for killed comrades or to be traumatised by death is striking. All that matters here is looting the dead for food and cigarettes.
     Equally unexpected in a war novel is the absence of military action by the soldiers at its centre, although they themselves are attacked. The main action, very often leading to the death of the soldier involved, is that of obtaining food. The one member of the enemy forces these soldiers discuss having met is one who swapped chocolate for cigarettes with them and tried to negotiate a personal ceasefire: “You no fire, I no fire.” Any efforts by their commander to get the soldiers to perform their tasks or to carry out attacks end in grotesque scenes of getting lost and invariably failing in the task at hand.
     But laughter swiftly turns to horror as we read about the men building fortifications partly from blasted-off bits of the bodies of soldiers who were previously on this territory. This emphasises just how unimaginably devoid of humanity war is.
     Many of these scenes clearly communicate directly O’Flaherty’s own experience. War destroys humankind not simply by destroying lives but also by destroying that within our relationships with other people which makes us human: the capacity for compassion, for support of our fellows, for having a creative purpose, and for grieving. All these are depicted in their grotesque disintegration and deformation.
     Return of the Brute is a modern novel, experimenting in interesting ways with other aspects of form. It introduces innovative dramatic elements, such as a photographic still with a voice-over effect stating each man’s civilian and military biography at the point where their corporal leads them into No Man’s Land. Then there is the Chaplinesque scene where several sections, ostensibly led by their commanders into attack, end up completely lost, and finally some eerie silent choreographies of death’s dance.
     O’Flaherty’s imagery supports the anti-war message of the novel. War is presented as a quagmire. Slime and mud are present from beginning to end, relentlessly sucking down life. Gunn’s hallucinations include terrifying images of a caveman with a club shattering the natural beauty of animal life. Glimpses of what the earth might be like, a love of animals and the beauty of the west of Ireland shining through, are used in counterpoint to the savagery of war. A violation of this natural beauty is an act of inhumanity and evil.
     In this kind of imagery as well as his unequivocal stance on the utterly anti-human, indeed dehumanising, nature of war, Liam O’Flaherty anticipates Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, presenting us with a vision of humanity after the Second World War, is at one with O’Flaherty in depicting a downward spiral of human relations to just barely meeting the criteria of Homo sapiens, crawling in a barren landscape.
     Return of the Brute is a timely book; it is of its time and has lost none of its significance today as the Brute continues to devour and devastate.

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