Friday, May 18, 2012

If I Die In A Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien 

"Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyse them and live our lives and advise others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."

Occasionally you come across a book that utterly captivates. You find yourself swept along in a river of prose which elevates writing to a different level. The writing resonates, its message is timeless and you find yourself compelled to read to the last page. "If I die in a Combat Zone" Tim O'Brien's account of his time in the combat zone is just such a book.

The book begins with O'Brien in the field of operations in Vietnam. His unit is out on patrol and comes under attack from snipers. It is apparently the tenth time on that particular day that they’ve been targeted.

In the summer of 1969 and university student Tim O'Brien is conscripted into the American army. After initial training he is assigned to the infantry and becomes a grunt an ordinary foot soldier, a GI. In describing his training O'Brien states that if someone wants to understand what happened in Mai Lai they need to understand Fort Lewis, Washington.

Throughout O'Brien isn’t afraid to castigate his comrades. He graphically describes the life of an American soldier on combat duty in South Vietnam. The army comes across as being lazy, badly motivated with low discipline and terrible morale. While officers, through their incompetence, barely command the respect of the men they're leading. The term lions lead by donkeys first used in a previous war comes to mind.

O'Brien finds himself in Mai Lai a year after the massacre in the area. Along with his fellow combatants he is at a loss as to why the locals are so antagonistic toward their defenders. It is only later that news of the massacre in the area emerges. Tim O'Brien graphically describes the reaction of his superior officers to the massacre. He informs us of the drunken rants of one officer who states the reason the massacre occurred was that due to the nature of the war American soldiers simply did not know who their enemies were. They were taking no chances and acted accordingly.

One of the strengths of the book is O'Brien questioning on what is meant by true courage. According to him the commanding officer of his unit Captain Johansen is the very personification of courage. That courage according to O’Brien is doing the right thing for the right reason. Johansen's replacement is Captain Smith a pompous overbearing commander whose actions lead to the deaths of several members of the unit and his, Smith's, eventual replacement.

As the book comes to the conclusion and O'Brien returns home to Minnesota, he asks, "What kind of war is it that begins and ends that way, with a pretty girl, cushioned seats and magazines?".


Thursday, May 03, 2012

Blue Angel, White Shadow by Charlson Ong 

Binondo, Manila; a young woman is found murdered in a room above the bar where she works as a cabaret singer. Cyrus Ledesma of the Philippines Police force is sent to investigate. Binondo, is Manila’s Chinatown, and as a mestiso (half Chinese, half Filipino) is also Ledesma’s home turf.

The bar where the young woman, Laurice Salgada, was murdered is known as The Blue Angel and is an old fashioned piano bar with an equally aging cliental. To the accompaniment of piano player Rey Nadurata, Laurice would sing various jazz standards throughout the night. Although not especially beautiful she has many admirers included among them are the owner of The Blue Angel, Antonio Cobianco and Lagdameo Go-Lopez, the Mayor of Manila.

Like the best crime novels the investigating officer has secrets and Blue Angel, White Shadow is no exception. Inspector Ledesma is formally an enforcer for the police. On their behalf he undertook many ex-judicial killings, though he later fell foul of the authorities when he murdered a police informer whom he suspected of being a paedophile. For this he was sent to prison and it was only through the intervention of his uncle Police Chief Ruben Jacinto that Ledesma was released and allowed to re-enter the force.

Charlson Ong’s story progresses through a series of character portraits where the investigation is related through the eyes of the various individuals involved. For instance the manageress of the Blue Angel is the whiskey drinking Rosa Misa. She’s a former singer, who saw her dreams crushed and with the help of Antonio Cobianco opens the bar where patrons can come, relax and listen to live music. When the investigation begins she is initially resistive and insists that nothing untoward have ever take place in her bar.

Rosa’s daughter Rosemarie, is a former reporter who assists Ledesma in his investigation. As with many of the characters through Rosa Misa and Rosemarie we come to learn of the many hopes and aspirations of Filipino society. The mother has dragged her daughter to Manila with the hope of making it big inevitably she fails and is left embittered, wondering what could have been.

The character Antonio Cobianco is a wealthy Chinese trader who in the late 1940’s fled Communist China. Unmarried, his brother and his wife came to Manila after him. Cobianco set up shop in Binondo and became a successful merchant.

I have to be honest and say that initially I found the manner of telling the story through various characters and their histories very confusing, I would have preferred the story to focus on one character, Inspector Ledesma for example. However once it got used to Ong’s method I found that it added another dimension to the novel and the reader was able to learn more about each character and their motivations.

Also a few cultural references had me wondering and I had to enquire from more informative sources as to what was meant by the writer.

Blue Angel, White Shadow touches on many issues. For example it comments on police corruption as well as the disintegration of civic society. Also we learn about the place of the Chinese community in the Philippines and how it interacts with the larger society.

Nostalgia also plays a big part in the novel and Charlson Ong has gone on record as saying that he’s a big Jazz fan and a great admirer of bee bop musicians such as John Coltrane. But there’s also a nostalgia for Binondo and a looking back with longing for the better days of Manila’s Chinatown.

As for the investigation, well I have to say that the perpetrator was a character I’d least suspected. Blue Angel, White Shadow is a wonderfully written, though provoking crime novel for which Charlson Ong won The Philippines 2011 National Book Award.

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