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World War I as it is written of and imagined in European and American minds is almost entirely of what was called the “Western Front,” France and Flanders, where the French and British, with some troops from their empires, fought the Germans; the Americans came late and to those same fields.  What is forgotten, or not known is that there was an Eastern Front and a Southern Front.  The naval and land battles at Galllipoli in what is now Turkey, are an exception, though thematically they are an extension of the Western Front: British Empire against the Turks.  Some recent histories have been written about the Axis powers fighting the Russians, and one memoir (and movie) exists about the Italians and the Austrians On the whole these are little known events to most readers.  Who were the people? Who fought, and why?  Who got caught, who fled, who died? What was the aftermath? Were heroes celebrated or the dead mourned in any public, communal way? Fictional treatments are almost non-existent.  Solzhenitsyn’s August, 1914 is one of the few.

Forest of the Hanged

Forest of the Hanged

One very interesting novel, almost unmentioned in commentary about war fiction, comes from Romanian author Liviu Rebreanu.  Titled in English, The Forest of the Hanged [1920], translated by A.V. Wise, it is quite different from the French, British and German war fiction of the period.  While most of them try to show us war through descriptions of life at the front, the mud, the lice, the boredom, the fear, the courage, Rebreanu goes to the most interesting questions of all: why does a man fight? Belonging and enmity, love and hate, God and faith are all in the mix, swirling in storms in one man, reflected and shared by others.

Apostol Bologa is a young officer in the Austrian army, of Rumanian (sic) ethnicity and nationality.  As the book opens he has just been on a courts martial and condemned a Czech officer to death for apparent desertion, possibly carrying maps and plans to the enemy.  He is satisfied with his decision, and appears at the site of the hanging where he inserts himself into the execution –a hanging, by the way, by strangulation, not by neck snapping.  The executioner’s job is to knock the stool from beneath the hanged man’s feet. It is done, and two things happen to disturb his sense of duty well done.

The arm of the gallows creaked and the body began to twirl in trying to find a support. In the eyes a strange radiant light blazed in quick flashes, and seemed to grow brighter and brighter.  Bologa could see the eyes swell and turn purple, but they kept their spiritual brightness, as if death itself could not put it out or destroy it.

Then he hears a “long drawn moan, like a call” he turns “to see a soldier with tears streaming down his cheeks, moaning with pity.”   Instead of signalling to him to stop, Bologa becomes confused,   the roof of his mouth goes dry.  A fellow officer,  who will later confess to thoughts of desertion, reminds him, yes, a crime has been punished, according to law, but still “a human being.”  Bologa’s world begins to shift “An icy feeling clutched at his heart.”

After a chapter on Bologa’s early life, showing him at university, in full discovery of ‘the philosopher’s stone,’ that collective action is what makes men out of meaningless nothings, we are returned to the front.  Through conversations with several other officers — one who refuses to touch a weapon and will only do paper work — and being privy to his thoughts we see his own swirling self doubt about belonging, love and religious faith gather strength and toss him from the heights to the depths and back up again.

One of the officers, an aide to a General, voices “the anarchist” position as it is called:

“The State!  The State which kills!  Behind us our State, in front of us the enemy State, and we in the middle, condemned to die in order to secure a peaceful, comfortable life for those brigands who are responsible for the massacre of millions of unconscious slaves.”

Another counters, “We protect our homeland, friend, the land of our forefathers.”

There are echoes too of the rebellion of the individual against the system, as expressed in other writing coming from the war,  by Dos Passos in Three Soldiers and e.e. cummings in The Enormous Room, among others..  Though Bologa’s individual doesn’t feel as threatened, or even crushed as do theirs it shares in the mood: to whom do I answer if I am a man?   To whom, or what, do I belong?  When threatened by village retaliation for his actions towards his fiancee, he retorts:

“With regard to my heart and my thoughts, I am, and mean to remain, my own master as long as I live.”

When his artillery unit is ordered to the Rumanian border his swirling emotions of loyalty and duty are thrown into complete turmoil.  He first asks for a transfer to the Italian front, and when denied — and abused by the general– he makes plans to desert to the Russians, gathering maps and walking the possible routes.  He is only stopped, and seriously wounded, by a Russian shell as he waits to make his dash.

from Forest of the Hanged

from Forest of the Hanged

Recovering with another fellow officer serious conversations take place about self-doubt, hypocrisy, decisions made and yet to be made. After earlier criticizing him for thoughts of desertion, his friend confesses that he, too, has had such thoughts.  Another, accused of hypocrisy for keeping his anti-war beliefs quiet and staying in the army, admits it, and justifies it, saying “my cowardice is a weapon of war and defense.  We must carry on and live if we are to see our sun arise!”

This sort of conversation, of deep and disturbing thoughts of loyalty and treason, belonging and love don’t happen in the many, better known novels from the Western Front. It’s not that there weren’t such emotion, doubts or rebellions.  There were, after all, enormous mutinies by French and by Italian soldiers. But the novelists, at least those I have read, did not take these interior realities as their theme, being caught by the externalities in the trenches more than by the tumult in the minds of those who inhabited them.

After Bologa recovers and returns to his division, the storms of belonging and loyalty are swept away by another:

On his lips he felt again the scorching touch of last night’s kiss.  In his soul remnants of the peace of a moment ago still lingered, but in his brain stormy thoughts and doubts seethed.  He vaguely felt that between God and his love there yawned an abyss, but he could not understand the purpose of this abysss.  If God was love, why was not, then, Ilona comprised in Him?”

Teetering precariously between one extreme and another he goes from teasing his very religious mother by telling her “God also goes out of fashion, like everything else,” to exclaiming not too many pages later, “My soul has found God again!”  He says out loud ” It seems to me that I have lived long enough and tomorrow I could die without qualm,” and then confesses that he knows his love for life is stronger than his convictions which would mean certain death.

When he comes across a gang of Rumanian prisoners and is pressed into service as a translator, one of the leaders tells him, full of contempt,

“If you were a real Rumanian you would not shoot your brothers.  Your place, sir, would be on the other side, not here.” … Bologa turned white.  His arm stiffened and his fists clenched.  The whole world seemed to be rolling down madly into an abyss.

And later, his ‘anarchist’ friend spells out to him the inverse

You would have murdered joyfully a thousand Russians or Italian to save yourself from shooting at your own people.  To kill here would seem a crime to you, whereas elsewhere–anywhere else–you wouldn’t mind, or you’d consider it a deed of bravery.”

His love for the young Hungarian woman grows

He stood up in order to beg her not to leave him, although the girl was still speaking with those strange flashes in her eyes.  The pool of light between them laughed and seemed to mirror its laughter in Ilona’s cheeks.

And God recedes:

“He knew that this love drew him from all his creeds and aspirations, and yet he felt that without it his heart would perish and life itself would lose its purpose and the world be turned into a wilderness… the fear that she would not come penetrated into the marrow of his bones…

The book closes as it begins.  Bologa is called to be on a court martial. This time he cannot.  This time he deserts. This time he is caught, and himself, joins the forest of the hanged….

It is quite a genuine exploration of a man caught between. Everything.

To our modern ear, toughened by the Hemingway birthed, and Mailer reared, view of terse, manly views of life and death The Forest of the Hanged often seems overwrought.  There is too much of “horror’ ‘haunted,’ ‘nightmare,’ ‘terrified,’ … ‘anguish.’  Melodrama shows itself, the over acted voice and gesture of the cinema of the same period. The changes of mind and heart come on too quickly, without growth and development, like a sail boat in shifting winds in the hands of an inexperienced sailor. No sooner are the sails full than the wind shifts and there is a near capsize. It is righted, God knows how, and then jibes, the man hanging on by luck and error.   Then at the finish line, after all the love of life, and love of God, and veering this way and that, to have a traditional joining of Religion and Nationalism in Death, is a disappointment. The journey there is better than the destination.

It is a rare journey, however.  No other World War book that I know of, except John Boyne’s relatively recent The Absolutist, spends anytime at all with questions of fighting or not fighting, of what is killing and what is murder, of who am I and who are they?  Few give competing voice, side by side, of those to whom the consequences matter.

Despite overwrought language by contemporary standards, there are some striking and unexpected images

 “The wind had stopped abruptly like a runner who comes suddenly upon a precipice.”

“That voice insinuated itself into Lieutenant Bologa’s ear like a needle.”

He was tired out by his journey and lack of sleep, and at his own place that morning, obsessed by the Hungarian girl’s strange glances, he had eaten as if with another man’s mouth.”  151

A perfect, evocative sentence I had not run across in many other war-time novels

“All were dressed in dirty uniforms smelling strongly of the trenches

Others nicely give us a taste of the times and the culture

“The execution is fixed for four o’clock, sir, may you live long.”

A corporal says,

“In war-time a man’s life is like a flower, its petals fall off and leave us wondering why.  The Lord has made us very sinful, and mortals are not forgiving.”

We become aware of armies of mixed nationalities, of Ruthenians, and Wallachians.

If it were celluloid we might call it a good B movie.  More enjoyable to those of a certain state of mind, and history but worth the time spent for most who drop in.  And speaking of movies there is, by the way, one made from the novel, though I haven’t been able to get hold of it. Directed by Liviu Ceiliu, who won Best Director for it at Cannes, 1965,  it gets very favorable mentions.  Note to self: Keep looking….

Forest of the Hanged

Forest of the Hanged

By the way, some 300,000 Romanians died on the Eastern Front which, as a percentage of population, puts them in third place at about 8.5%, following the Ottoman empire at 15% and Serbia at 18%.  As a cynical wounded vet in Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But, crows, calling out the numbers of French and German dead:  “We’re winning!  We’re winning!”