Sunday, July 10, 2005

Review: The Diezmo by Rick Bass and In the Shadow of the Sun by Alexander Parsons

BEHIND CLOSED BARS; Two historical novels capture the bleak horror of being a prisoner of war. (Lifestyle) Edward Nawotka.

This article originally appeared in The Austin American-Statesman

The pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib last year were shocking not merely because they revealed that U.S. soldiers were torturing Iraqi prisoners but because of the obvious imagination that went into the cruelty. If we are to believe that the soldiers were operating on orders from above, then those photos showed a mean genius at work somewhere in the U.S. military.

Creativity in torture is a trait that is shared by virtually all cultures. Think of Torquemada's rack or the "Chinese" water torture (actually invented in Italy in the 16th century). Santa Anna's Mexican army had its own distinct way of controlling prisoners: the Diezmo. In this ritual punishment, one tenth of a captured army is executed; an opposing force was literally decimated.

Fort Worth-born author Rick Bass has taken the name of this ritual for his second novel, "The Diezmo," a reimagination of the ill-fated Mier Expedition of 1843. The Mier was itself an offshoot of the Sommervell Expedition, in which an army of 750 irregulars marched into Northern Mexico seeking revenge for Santa Anna's defeat of the Dawson Expedition.

First the marauding Texans sacked the border town of Laredo, raping its inhabitants and pillaging what little wealth there was. Then, after two-thirds of the force turned back in shame toward San Antonio, the remainder pushed on to Mier, where they attempted to extort a ransom from the town, promising to save it from Laredo's fate. A large Mexican army came to Mier's rescue, and after a dramatic nighttime battle in which nearly 1,500 Mexican soldiers were killed, the Texans surrendered with the guarantee of being treated as prisoners of war.

Bass tells this story from the vantage point of the late 19th century, through the eyes of James Alexander, a grown man looking back at his youth. Alexander begins with his initial recruitment as a 16 year-old into the army and ends with his eventual release from the notorious Mexican prison at the Castle of Perve.

A little more than halfway through the novel's 200 pages, the captured Texans escape into the desert north of Saltillo. But forgetting to bring water, they suffer horribly in the sun and resort to drastic measures (such as drinking their own urine) to survive. It's the kind of grim material that is endlessly fascinating to adolescent males but will prompt most adults to turn away in disgust.

But that would be a mistake. Bass, who has written numerous nonfiction books about the natural world, is very good at describing how one's senses can interpret the same events differently depending on one's state of mind. In his telling, the barbarity of the Diezmo is enhanced by being conducted at dusk, which is "poor shooting light." Bass elaborates on this point, writing that killing began with "the signal taps of the drum" and then "took a lot of shooting -- volley after volley, amid much shouting." Later, when the men are out of danger, dusk is evoked with these words: "the first fireflies began to appear and the tree frogs in the reeds and groves of cottonwoods began to trill, and the bullfrogs began their nighttime drumming." That double use of drumming -- once, literal, to announce the approach of death, and once, metaphorical, to announce the approach of night -- is quite masterful.

Bass is also not stingy on historical particulars, identifying the colors of stone (green and red) used to decorate the roads and detailing how prisoners would bribe the Mexican blacksmiths to replace metal chain links with malleable lead. It's a sad and well-told tale, but one best suited to history buffs who can stomach the grim detail.

Darkness falls

Another author associated with Texas, the onetime Austinite Alexander Parsons, has also penned a novel, "In the Shadows of the Sun," that focuses on the physical and psychological torture endured by prisoners of war. But Parsons adds another dimension: the effects of war on the home front. "Shadows," the follow-up to his award-winning debut, "Leaving Disneyland," recounts the saga of the Stricklands, a World War II-era New Mexico ranching family struggling to survive after the U.S. Army requisitions its land for use as a bombing range. Parsons jumps between the home front and the story of young Jack Strickland, who was thought to have been killed in the battle for the Philippines, but was in fact captured by the Japanese and is trying to stay alive.

This makes for one bleak book. "Shadows" opens with an Army lieutenant asking for water and then being forced to dig his own grave, and never lets up as nearly all of Jack's friends and acquaintances are killed.

Meanwhile, at home, the elder Stricklands, middle-aged brothers named Ross and Bayliss, break horses, mend fences, run off looters and wait for the military to take over their land, which is eventually converted into the Trinity field, where the first atomic bombs were tested. All the while, the men neglect their marriages, grow increasingly resentful of their circumstances and fall into penury, drunkenness, murder and, eventually, suicide. It's as if they're imprisoned in their own lives. Parsons writes: "The pattern had started fifteen years before, after their grandfather had gashed his leg on a fence while breaking (a horse), opening an artery and bleeding to death." (That man's father, Jack's grandfather, dies after falling off a windmill he was fixing.) Jack lives, but only to serve as a witness to the atomic explosion over Japan.

Parsons, who has clearly done his research, has included an extensive bibliography of source material. Some of his story is drawn from history. There is a McDonald ranch house on the Trinity site and Jack's unit, the New Mexico 200th Coast Artillery, actually existed.

But while Parsons may have captured the facts, one can't help but think that J.G. Ballard and Cormac McCarthy have written about similar milieus, but demonstrated more sympathy for their characters. The misery here is so relentless that one gets the feeling Parsons has thrown character after character into Kierkegaard's void (the one we are all dangling over by a thin thread) just to see if he can hear a "splat" and know there's a bottom.

Parsons does have a touch of the poet in him, which adds some beauty to the darkness. For example, a group of bound U.S. soldiers awaiting execution is described thusly: "At the well the POWs stood with the sun slanting down on them so that they appeared in partial silhouette. Their heads looked overly large and unbalanced on their thin necks, and their hands lent them a formal bearing, as if they were gathered for inspection."

There's grace in that prose, but one is entitled to some skepticism as to its effect. In both of these books, the suffering of American soldiers (or, in the case of Bass's book, Texas soldiers who would become Americans a couple of years later) turned prisoners of war is described in excruciating detail. Perhaps the authors intend to sensitize us to the suffering of our own prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps they intend to reinforce our country's heightened sense of vicimization. Perhaps they have no political intent at all.

In any case, it would seem there is no better time to read books that powerfully portray the repercussions of mistreating prisoners of war. The question is whether readers possess the will or desire to experience the creative forms of torture these authors have in store for them.

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