Towards the end of the year, when holidays loom and I'm looking for some good books to read, I look through various recommendations on websites and blogs (after discounting all those pontificators who try to tell us they're going to read Evelyn Waugh or Eudora Welty on the beach). This year, it seemed like half the blog world was recommending Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.
I have a friend who has been writing for some years about the effects of the Vietnam War on the families of vets, so this caught my interest. What would it be like? Gory? Over-inflated? Movie-like? I started reading "Matterhorn" on 27th December. I got 40 pages into it and stopped. Did I really want to read this? Could I bear to? The reasons for my hesitation? Already by Page 40 I could tell this was not going to be an easy read. It would be heavy, long, gruesome and probably really depressing. I wasn't sure if I was ready (sometime you have to be "ready" for certain books). I decided to keep going, mainly because already I had such a strong sense of setting and character, and also a sense that I was about to be taken on an unforgettable journey.
I finished it today around 2pm. I had brushed away tears more than twice, but more than that, I had been angry, astounded, gutted, marveling, head-shaking and shaken. It's only 2nd January and already I think this is going to be my top book of 2011 (anything else will have to be absolutely amazing to go past this book). No, I didn't enjoy this much. It's not light and fluffy. It's eye-opening. It made me wonder how any vet who fought on the front line in Vietnam came back even moderately sane. And it left me feeling despair about the overwhelming futility of war.
What's it about? Basically it follows the story of Bravo Company, most specifically a Lieutenant Mellas (although other viewpoints weave in and out of the story) and a disastrous couple of months in the monsoon season, trying to fight the NVC along a range of mountains near the DMZ. The author, Karl Malantes, apparently was a highly-decorated Marine and fought in the war, and it shows in the level of detail but also in the way he depicts each and every Marine as human and real. Nothing is simple, least of all a war fought behind a sham wall of politics at all levels. Malantes focuses on the Marines in the jungle, the insane missions they are expected to carry out, and the officers safe in their little command posts who have no idea of either the terrain or the conditions.
Like the Marines in the story, I wanted to grab those officers and strangle them, and it made me wonder if troops feel the same way in every war (like Afghanistan and Iraq). It apparently took Malantes 30 years to write this book. It shows, in that you feel all the way through that this is the work of his whole heart and soul, let alone those 30 years of writing and revision.
Yes, not an easy read at all. Every night I kept having dreams about it! But if you're up to it, you'll probably be like me and want to recommend it to everyone you meet.