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The funny side of war

books Updated: Sep 09, 2011 22:20 IST
Antara Das
Antara Das
Hindustan Times
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Wars are not waged and fought the way they used to be. If they did, they would surely throw up a Yossarian once in a while: a World War 2 bombardier for an American B-25, yes, but more importantly, by his own admission, "a real, slam-bang, honest-to-goodness, three-fisted humdinger... a bona fide supraman". As Joseph Heller's protagonist in his novel Catch 22, caught in the frustrating, circumlocutory bind of the eponymous military regulation, Yossarian's voice is still the most roiling, rambunctious deflation of the craft of war. As coincidences go, Yossarian turns 50 in a year when the war on terror -sporadic, rambling, disjointed but as gritty about killing as any other - turns ten.

On first reading, Yossarian is meant to crack one up: he flies the sorties, not with the poignant sense of resignation and defeat that characterises Antoine de St Exupery's efforts during the Battle of France in Flight to Arras, but only with the aim of completing a required number that will allow him to stop flying.

But therein lies the fabled Catch: the only way to escape the ever increasing schedule of sorties is to plead insanity, and yet it's only a rational mind that would want to escape combat duty. So Yossarian keeps flitting in that in-between zone where he is not healthy but is yet to contract a disease, leading to comic exchanges of dialogue guaranteed to generate laughs till you return to the novel and find that the pain at the heart of that comedy is way more searing and profound than any direct indictment of the cruelties of war. The humour inherent in the 'seeming-logicalities' is, of course, enhanced by the boisterous language and the unconstrained garrulity of Yossarian and his creator: the apparently nonsensical and naïve exchanges must build up to that crescendo where meaning finally begins to emerge, and a serious intention is unveiled.

That surfeit of the spoken word, or obscuring the subversive in the bawdy is, of course, also the hallmark of the other immortal soldier in literature: Jaroslav Hasek's good soldier Svejk in the unfinished novel of the same name. "The bloodiest fool and bastard in the whole world", Svejk bungles his way through the ranks of the Austrian army when war breaks out in 1914, his endless anecdotes and verbal excess exposing the absurdity of hierarchies, discipline and routine. Svejk admits, that "he has a well-developed talent for observation when it's already too late and some unpleasantness has happened", conferring the role of the seer on his hapless, much-derided self.

Svejk, of the Great War, and Yossarian, of the Good War, belong to the world where authorities spoke authoritatively, providing enough scope for circumvention and comic relief. The first decade of the 21st century would conflate and blur the boundaries between the nonsense and the serious, when the war on terror would be launched by an US president who by his own admission has been "long miscalculated as a leader", and who would go on to proclaim that "[our enemies] never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people - and neither do we".

No matter the location of the conflict, whether it is broadcast live or reported blow-by-blow by embedded journalists, the humour of the barracks perhaps provides the most engaging, enduring and accurate portrait of a war. Its philosophy is unsullied and apolitical, and often transcends the barriers of both time and place. There have to be crooks in the world, too, Svejk observes: "If everyone were honest with each other, they'd soon start punching each other's noses." As Howard Jakobson observes in his 2004 essay on Catch 22, "the blackest of black jokes" proves in the end that "nothing is too ludicrous to eventuate".