Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body comes with encomiums such as ” a stunning exploration of war,” “a great novel of life in wartime,” and “magnificently captured the surreal experience of the modern soldier.” I’ve spent many reading hours with fiction, journals and histories trying to understand why war is so prevalent in the human species. With so much testimony to its horror, with so many corpses to contemplate, why do men go so willingly? What do they imagine will happen? What in fact happens? Why are they often so cruel? Would they send their child to war?
Here was a much praised novel by a young, non-soldier writer. How could I pass it up? I was even more hopeful, having read two other novels of his, the wonderful first, The Solitude of Prime Numbers and the recent Like Family. In both we find marvelous, delicate perceptions of human relationships, small, uneventful lives described which bring us in and understand why they are important.
By the time I was halfway through The Human Body I was beginning to wonder, what am I missing here? Yes, it is about soldiers, 15 Italians, in a war setting, Afghanistan. And yes, it is likely accurate in the sense that war is 95 % boredom, 5 % terror. But their boredom, to my ear, was not very interesting, not as interesting as the lives of a husband, wife and deceased nanny were in Like Family, not nearly as compelling as the two odd characters of Prime Numbers, and long way from the daily lives and thoughts of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to which at last one blurbist compares it.
The novel opens with a prologue, a teaser of sorts, with quick references to a “mission” which has transmuted over time in the minds of those who experienced it. We won’t really understand the references until we return after reading the book.
In the early chapters we are introduced to the soldiers in pre-deployment training, a few of whom are taken in by the ear-catching chatter of veterans about the easy availability of women in Afghanistan. The brash, aggressive Cederna and a timid, virginal Iettri, who improbably develop a tender friendship, are introduced. Ietri’s mother comes to visit the weekend before deployment. Wives and girlfriends plan picnics, movie dates. The men think about sex. Cederna and his girlfriend, Agnese, quarrel over Japanese food. Marshall René the top sergeant, who has a second job – servicing women for friendship and money– discovers that one of them is pregnant.
Already at Forward Operating Base Ice, is Lieutenant Egitto. He as asked for a second tour and is the only one who has seen war-fighting, of any kind. He has been addicted to dulocetine for some time, letting his anxiety slip into “a vast, soothing amiability.” In a foretaste of what is to come, Doctor and the Regimental Colonel talk about mundane things: the Colonel’s love of skiing interrupted by his wife’s accident, minor worries about scaling skin.
The base itself is nothing, “only sand. Yellow, clinging sand, your boots sink in it up to your ankles. If you brush it off your uniform, it swirls in the air a bit and then comes back and lands in the same spot.” A helicopter delivering supplies drops them too close to each other, the parachutes tangle, the pallets crash, the food is ruined. A cow is purchased from the locals, slaughtered and much enjoyed, which leads to a certain theme in war stories — how errors multiply. On patrol in the village, the soldiers toss out candy to the kids and abuse them in Italian. Afghan workers stop to pray; the Italians are pissed, contemptuous. Soldiers e-mail their sweethearts; misunderstandings occur. One, whose correspondent is virtual, become panicked that she might be a he.
Two women are part of the story. Zampieri is a member of the platoon, Irene is an investigator from the Command, and former lover of the Doctor. Though both are given a commendable share of self-determination and are able to hold their own in a male dominated environment, they are also more explicitly sexual than any of the men, even than René, the gigolo. I suppose “woman is sex” is unavoidable with fourteen men and two women, whether in fiction or reality, but something doesn’t quite work for me. It’s as if Giordano hasn’t pushed deep enough into the human realities of his scene. Given the set-up, there is little sexual tension. And not because sex is repressed or avoided out of “unit solidarity.” The women make their choices and the men go along with them, no competition. The one jealous reaction is muted, comradeship wins.
Nor is there much fighting, though a night time bombardment and the final fatal caravan escort are significant. More troubling is that, given Giordano’s gifts with language, we don’t feel the tension and the dread of being unwanted strangers, of the unknown, of being under deadly fire for the first time. It’s as if, despite Giordano’s two tours as a reporter in Afghanistan, he is not able to enter the interior lives of those he has come to live with.
There are brief passages confirming what many others have said about war, and why a man joins the army.
“He’s not afraid. Not at all. Instead, he’s excited. If they were to be ambushed, he knows that his reaction time to load the rifle or draw the pistol and take aim at the target would be less than two seconds…”
“Morale is high, especially among those who are about to leave: although they’re aware of the danger of venturing outside the security bubble in a column … who’d want to be a soldier without the opportunity to do some shooting?”
Men communicate with men everywhere through jokes, pranks, put-downs. In some cases it becomes cruelty, the weakest the scapegoat. So too, among Italians. A decapitated snake is hidden in the sleeping bag of the easiest mark; terror and gun play result. The doctor doesn’t keep a diarrhea stricken soldier from the convoy escorting Afghani truck drivers through a dangerous valley. Errors multiply.
Despite the bravado, some men encounter fear:
He’d been afraid, scared shitless, and now all that fear can’t find a way out. It’s stuck in his throat. He’s about to start crying but he can’t, he mustn’t, because the men are around and Zampieri is right there. Is he a soldier or what? Isn’t this what he wanted?
In the end four die and one is severely wounded. After the tour is finished the Doctor — who strongly cautioned against the caravan– is held responsible for the wounded one, allowed to go out despite his diarrhea disability. As to the dead, no responsibility is assigned.
The Human Body is translated by a much called upon and very good translator, Anne Milano Appel. It reads easily and well. Whatever conundrums the longer sentences and richer grammar of Italian might have caused her, they don’t show. I did notice in several places, too tender a selection of nouns or adjectives for a book about men at war.
“The rifle barrels glint in the sun and the two boxes of ammunition give more than one of the guys the urge to load his weapon, leave the base, and start shooting randomly at any Afghans who come within range.”
“Guys” is much too casual to my ear.
Or, after confusion in an email exchange, a soldier thinks: “What a fiasco!”
I don’t think so. “What a mess.” “What a fuck-up,” Something, but not fiasco.
But of course I’m just a casual eye looking at a table of choices someone else has labored long and diligently to provide to us. Others, enjoying the story, will notice other things out of place, or nothing at all.
Giordano did write to some degree to get at the question I always have in reading about men and war: what is happening here? Why can’t the obvious lessons be learned? It appears he has not been able to find answers to his satisfaction. Doctor Egitto turns to his meds:
“One pill a day, each to erase a single question to which over time I had found no answer. Why do wars break out: How does one become a soldier? What is a family?”
As I finished the last pages of the book I felt more and more irritated with myself as when the solution to a problem –math, computer behavior, directions– eludes me. So many reviewers not only liked it but called it “stunning,” “magnificent, “great.” What was I not seeing?
Well, it turns out I am not alone. While many thought highly of the novel, quite a few did not, including a Serbian woman who had found a publisher and translator for The Solitude of Prime Numbers in Serbia. The Human Body left her “cold and indifferent,” as though “not written by the same author.”
Not to persuade you not to read it, but depending on your particular reasons for reading a celebrated young Italian author, you might want to start with another of his much praised work.