Sunday, December 2, 2012

John Boyne writes a powerful novel about friendship and war.

The Absolutist

John Boyne’s The Absolutist (320 pages, Other Press, $16.95) tells a riveting story about the friendship between two teenage soldiers during the First World War.  Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft meet during training in Aldershot in England before being sent to France to engage in fighting.

The novel is told in retrospect by Tristan, and it quickly becomes clear that of the two, he is the one who survived the war.  Clearly he is shaken by the experience, and as the details emerge, through both his recounting of the experiences themselves and his story as he tells it to Will’s older sister after the war, we come to realize a wrenching and devastating experience whose enormity we only gradually understand.

In training, Tristan and Will become friends, even though they come from different backgrounds—Will’s father is a vicar in a prosperous town, and Tristan’s father is a butcher in grimy North London.  Be that as it may, these two good looking and intelligent young men become soul mates and they find a way of facing the horror of training and what will come after with a certain degree of equanimity.

Their intimacy intensifies, in a way, as they, but especially Will, befriend a conscientious objector among the twenty young men in their regiment.  Wolf, this friend, is outspoken and insistent on his objections to the war.  At first Tristan is simply jealous of Wolf.  He is spending considerable time with Will, and Tristan resents any time that he spends away from the man he has come to love.  When, still in Aldeshot, Wolf is murdered, after it is made to look like he is trying to escape, Will is knocked for a loop.  Tristan is not so quick to imagine a conspiracy, but Will is sure.  He is devastated by Wolf’s loss and what it implies, but he does not discover until later how much it means to him.

Meanwhile Tristan is mooning over Will, and before they leave England, Will initiates a sexual encounter that thrills and confuses Tristan.  He is thrilled for obvious reasons, but he is confused because Will ignores him and refuses to talk about their experience afterward.  He is becoming more and more concerned about the political situation and has no interest in talking about their personal affairs.  

Once in France, the experience of the trenches is told in vivid and grueling detail.  In the midst of the mud and the lice and the constant death all around them, Tristan is still obsessed with Will, and almost to increase the torment, Will drags him off for another encounter, even as he treats him more sternly and almost hostilely.

When Tristan is trying to tell Will's sister what happened to her brother, she knows he is hiding something, and he is hiding it from us as well.  What finally emerges is that when Will sees a brutal atrocity that seems to him to be against any conventions of war or humanity, he turns against the war.  Tristan tries to calm him down, but Will, motivated by an abiding principle, challenges the powers that be and finds himself in opposition to his commanding officers.

Needless to say, this is an uncomfortable position, but what makes it even more difficult in these extreme conditions is the drama that is played out between these two men as the life and death intensity of the war is played out all around them.

Boyne tells this story beautifully, and I don’t want to reduce any of the impact of what happens in the end.  I will say, though, that this is a beautifully crafted novel that will cause you to keep thinking about it for a long time to come.

John Boyne

The Absolutist is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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