Human beings have been reporting on wars and battles almost as long as there have been wars and battles (which may mean they have always been, if you are to accept the idea that mankind has an innate inclination toward violence). The earliest cave paintings depicted our forebears on great hunts; and oral histories of all early human civilisations recount battles and wars in their various bloody guises. Shakespeare, of course, deserves mention here for the means with which he memorialised England’s dynastic wars in his plays.
Yet the idea of professionalising this war reportage into something an individual person sets out to specifically do has perhaps more recent historical trappings. From Henry Crabb Robinson’s early reports of battles against Napoleon for the London Times, through to coverage of the D-Day landings; the French and subsequent American wars in Vietnam; through to coverage of both Gulf Wars; the Troubles in Ireland and Northern Ireland and indeed, conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world – the human desire to seek first-hand accounts of the multiple ways we can find means of killing one another has shifted in tone through our most recent generations.
As times change, war correspondence has changed, also – from the first wide-use of video clips to bring wars into our living rooms, through to the advent of social media, which pummels our pockets with updates from global conflicts.
The sole constant here is perhaps the war correspondent themselves. That person who witnesses war and tells, shows, or tweets their experiences to others.
What does it mean to be an observer to war? Is it possible to retain any semblance of independence as a ‘neutral’ party when one sees what war is so closely? And what do war correspondents do when there is no war to report on? How do people who derive and depict meaning from mass human violence – and how do people who earn a living through their involvement with this – respond when faced with the relative peace of society?
Answers to these questions are hard to come by and are, by their very nature, complex. Yet there is fascinating and powerful insight provided by the exceptional book This is the place to be by Lara Pawson.
Pawson, who worked as a journalist for the BBC in several African countries between 1996 and 2007, grapples with such themes – among many others (including women’s rights, the intrinsic value of language to a person’s identity, and what it means to form relationships with people who exist in a quasi-state of acquaintance; from youths in your neighbourhood to stall owners in your local market).
Reflecting on her time covering the Angolan Civil War, she writes:
“It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs.”
In the clearest of ways, This is the place to be is in essence a written attempt at self-evaluation and rigorous self-critique. Described ostensibly as a memoir, this seems appropriate – given that, as David Sheilds notes in Reality Hunger, “For centuries, the memoir was, by definition: prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins.” Yet Pawson’s novel is not concerned with human sin, per se – there is no attempt to moralise human behavior; instead, the focus is on trying to dissect it. This refers not only to the dissection of human behavior on a societal scale – as a sociologist might – but rather, also on an intensely personal level.
Indeed, the inquisitiveness of Pawson’s prose creates an existential inquisitiveness that balances finely with the author’s inclination toward more descriptive journalistic reportage. Consider, for instance, the scene in which the narrator sees a “woman cut in half by an articulated lorry”:
“I was in my car and as I drove around the roundabout, I saw the head and bust and waist of a woman and then, a few feet away, her lower half: wearing a skirt, her ankles and feet still sticking out at the bottom. At least, that’s what I believe I saw and what I remember I saw. And it’s what I have told many people I saw. But considering the binding problem, I wonder if what I say I saw was in fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real – the upper part of her body, or the lower part?”
Moving from the simple precise description of the scene, the sudden reflection and of questioning one’s own experiences – one’s own sight and memories – opens possibilities for the reader in a way simple reportage of fact fails to do. And it engages with interesting concepts and themes – not least of the which is that of the fallibility of memory.
Nothing, after all, is as unreliable as our recollections of events. We know that our brains reconstruct fragments of things we perceive to recreate wholes; meaning that what we think we saw may not be verified by CCTV cameras (if there are CCTV cameras to counterbalance against our memories). As Patrick Duff, from The Brink of Oblivion, notes: “Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.”
The fragmentary and selective nature of memory is itself reflected in the very structure of Pawson’s book.
Of course, fragmentation as a structural form within literature is not new, yet Pawson builds on its modernist origins and takes it to somewhere new and unique (and, as she does so, skillfully avoiding becoming simply “post-modern” or unduly self-referential about it all, as other writers sometimes tend to do).
Indeed, while fragmentation was employed by some of the modernist writers of the 20th century to help them capture how the (then) modern world overloaded the human mind (think of Dubliners, by Joyce, for instance); Pawson’s This is the place to be also helps create this sense of sensory overload caused by our ‘modern’ existences – and how it can lead to fragmentation of thought and feeling. But it goes a step further because it does not seek to necessarily imply that the world is fragmenting the mind; but rather that the mind (being fragmented itself) seeks to make sense of the world through analysis of fragmented episodes, which, though they may seem unconnected and disassociated from one another at first glance, in fact share a much greater commonality.
To dwell on this for a moment longer: what is interesting about the use of fragmentation in Pawson’s book is the careful balance between unity and disunity that comes from structuring the memoir in this way. On the one hand, the chosen form enables the reader to starkly experience the horrors – and mundanity – of war, and also the mundanity – and horrors – of modern, perhaps sedentary, ‘western’ life. The disunity between, say, the tension of the author finding herself in rebel held territory, arriving at a scene of an ambush moments after a massacre, are fraught with such tension that it is a genuinely affecting experience to read. Yet contrast this with a friendly relationship with a market stall owner in Walthamstow and at first glance the impression is one of a real disconnect. However, explore the text as a whole and suddenly contrasts become comparisons and quickly similarities – jokes shared with market stall owners transpose themselves as jokes shared with the pilots of old airplanes and army vehicles, even high ranking government officials or colonels. This fragmentary sense of broken unity, or conversely, of united disunity, is surely in its own way so recognisable to ourselves as readers, because one of the fundamental truths about the human condition – of human life – is how full of simultaneous contradictions and similarities it is and can be. We are defined in so many ways by the united, harmonised parts of ourselves, even when those parts, when looked at individually and of themselves, can seem so at odds with one another under the microscope.
Speaking of microscopes can invoke a sense of forensic exploration and what This is the place to be does well is avoid any sense of intense introspection. The reader is never told what to think or how to feel, simply shown and left to bring their own meaning to the scenes they are presented with.
This style of writing is ultimately a true indication of Pawson’s great ability as a writer. After all, to write about subjects as intense as war carries with it a weight of expectation. Think, for instance, of Vonnegut’s quasi-autobiographical narrator in Slaughterhouse 5, who remarks he “thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden, because all I would have to do would be to write what I saw” – yet finds quickly that this is impossible, because the subject is “too big”. Simply writing about war is not simple at all, it seems.
In his essay, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explores how we react when “the unimaginable impossible happen[s]”. To many (most?) of Pawson’s readers, the thought of finding ourselves in the midst of a civil war is just that: unimaginable. Yet by balancing the unimaginable with the extremely relatable (Angola vs Walthamstow, etc.), Pawson counterpoints two very real – but very different – realities in such a way that the world we cannot picture becomes more accessible; while the world we perhaps think we know becomes that little bit more strange and alien.
We live in a time when so many people now express the sentiment of “not recognising” the country or people they live with. This is true in the UK, from hard-right brexiteers who complain of non-white people working and living in their towns; through to liberal and metropolitan ‘remain’ voters, as well as left-wingers, who can’t believe hard-right brexiteers and racists seem to be in control of the UK government. And it is true of the USA, where Donald Trump was able to re-use Reagan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan to such affect precisely because it tapped into a sentiment raging across America’s deep (but superficially hidden) divides of people who felt that ‘their’ country somehow wasn’t “great”. Similarly to the UK, Trump’s election has also shaken the self-belief of the USA’s ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, who thought that Obama’s election may have finally signalled a key change in direction for the country. That they now, in their eyes, have a misogynistic, self-proclaimed sexual harasser, blustering bigot, egregious egomaniac and would-be demonic despot for a president is, to use Žižek’s expression, “unimaginable [and] impossible”. Yet here we are.
In a world that seems so unrecognisable to so many – we need books like Pawson’s This is the place to be that shows us how to recognise things we think we cannot imagine; and reflects our feelings of uncertainty about the world and things we think we know and understand. Our worlds can so easily become so small and narrow and defined; This is the place to be helps bridge the divide between our social bubbles and the rest of the planet and reminds us, ultimately, of our place within it.
To purchase a copy of Lara Pawson’s This is the place to be, visit CB Editions – http://www.cbeditions.com/pawson.html