Long Long Way Hardcover – Feb 8 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori--that's the line from Horace (later famously quoted by war poet Wilfred Owen) that Irish poet, playwright and novelist Barry seeks to debunk in this grimly lyrical WWI novel. After four years of brutal trench fighting, Willie Dunne, once an eager soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is still a "long long way" from home. Irish Home Rule seems a distant fantasy after the miserable Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin, which Willie, back in Ireland on his first furlough, was forced to help quell, firing on his own people; relations with his pro-British father, who abhors Willie's equivocal stance on Irish nationalism, have soured; his beloved Gretta has married another man; and most of his original Irish band of brothers have been slaughtered. The novel's dauntless realism and acute figurative language recall the finest chroniclers of war (Willie supposes that dead French soldiers "lay all about their afflicted homeland like beetroots rotting in the fields"). Still, Barry lingers too long on the particulars of the battlefield--the lice, the putrid muck--while failing to adequately develop the disasters Willie must face back in Ireland. As such, this somber novel--unlike Barry's moving previous book, Annie Dunne, whose eponymous narrator is Willie's younger sister--often lacks the nonsoldier human faces necessary to fully counterpoint the coarseness of military conflict, though its inevitably bleak conclusion is heartrending.
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Willie Dunne is born in a storm during the "dying days" of Ireland. It is not an auspicious beginning. This novel of Ireland and World War I wears a cloak of gloom and doom as thick as the opening storm. Willie's mother dies young. Willie enlists in the army and fights on the Western Front. Willie's sweetheart marries another, and so on. The wartime scenes are brutally realistic. Throughout this dark novel, though, are glimpses of sweetness and light, such as a scene where Willie's father bathes the returning soldier in an attempt to rid him of lice. Those not familiar with British-Irish history may find some of the personal conflicts and politics in the novel confusing, but nevertheless a compellingly sad, if difficult, read. Marta Segal
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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In addition to the usual concerns of every soldier, Willie also must confront and resolve his differences with his own father over political tensions in his own country as well as his love and betrayal (his soul is "filleted") of the beautiful Gretta. There are many memorable characters (Willie's sister Dolly, Father Buckley, Sergeant-Major Christy Moran) and scenes here: when Willie sees his first death in battle (of Captain Pasley), when he kills his first German, when he returns to Dublin on leave and his father bathes him, when he visits the empty grave back in Ireland of Captain Pasley.
The horrors of war of course forever change Willie. He figures out that not King George but Death was the "King of England. . . Emperor of all the empires." His comrades try to define victory. "'You put out a crowd of lads on the field, and the other side put out a crowd of lads, and you had musket shot and calvary. . . And when everyone was dead on the other side, you had a victory. A victory, you know? Well, and that's not the same with us, then is it?' said Willie. . . 'And if more of us is left standing, then they might be calling that a sort of victory. . . Some f-----g victory. . . Some f-----g war.'"
Sadly some stories do not change.
The protagonist, Willie Dunne, is trapped in colonized Ireland while the world wages its war. Fighting in another land while his own country remains under the thumb of Britain, Willie's questions haunt him as he tries to battle in the trenches. On leave while at home, family and internal political events turn him even more confused and strain his personal relationships. Barry could not have composed a better story than A Long Long Way, to depict the intense human dilemma of a young man like Willie Dunne.
Irish and Russian writers seem to be able to best locate where things fall apart and how they affect us all. Barry now writes from within that haunting tradition.
Mr Barry depicts the bottom-of-the-barrel place of young Irish Catholics in the hierarchy of Britain's WWI. When this fundamental problem is accentuated by the rejection of his father and girlfriend, the uncomplicated youth senses that his only community is that of his Flanders comrades.
Once you are used to the book's lilting language, it sweeps you up in the mud, guts and body parts that are its sad staffage.
This is an extremely fine book, but is not in any sense an easy read.
At the time war broke out in 1914, there was a general understanding that Ireland would be granted home rule within a few years. So young men like Willie Dunne, the son of an officer in the Dublin police, joined up to fight for King and Country with the thought of earning England's gratitude and further advancing the cause of freedom. But others had no such trust, and felt that the only solution was to snatch independence by force; their view ultimately prevailed, but split Irish society in the process. When Willie is home on furlough, he finds himself caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, forced to fire on his own people. Back in the trenches, he becomes more aware of the anti-Irish prejudice of the English officers and the conflicted attitudes of his countrymen. Trying to explain this in a letter to his father, he only succeeds in alienating him. By the end of the book, such concepts as King and Country have been replaced by simpler realities: comradeship, survival, and mud.
For Barry keeps his focus very much at ground level. Willie remains a private throughout, and the author never steps back to take a more exalted view. But the book's realism is offset by a poetry in the writing that befits a countryman of Joyce. He has an extraordinary eye for detail: "Even the leaves of the trees, so fresh the day before, seemed to have gone limp on their natural hinges and twisted about sadly, not making the usual reassuring music of the poplars along the roadside, but a dank, dead, metallic rustling, as if every drop of sap had been replaced with a dreadful poison." The account of the first appearance of the strangely beautiful yellow cloud that precedes this is the first of many magnificent set pieces in the novel. Others include the Easter Rising, a regimental boxing match, several suitably bewildering battles, and the lovely oasis of a visit that Willie pays to the country home of his former captain towards the end of the book.
By the time the War ends, very few of Willie's original regiment are left. Sebastian Barry makes no attempt to suggest that death on such a scale is justified by some higher cause; no writer on the First War can do that with much honesty. But even as he questions notions of patriotism, he does succeed in portraying the War as a personal spiritual journey; the book ends with a quality of acceptance that does at least offer some kind of consolation.
Willie Dunne's story, as one of the dwindling, by 1918, 16th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, can be emblematic of all those southern Irishmen who fought for what they confusedly supposed would be a cause that would attain not only British victory and the salvation of Belgium against the Hun, but Home Rule for their island nation. While the pace does sag in parts due to the dreariness of the protracted trench life that Willie must endure, Barry labours mightily to keep a light touch upon a heavy subject, and his depictions of the sights that Willie and millions of others saw effectively keep a reader's interest, even if there is not much of a plot other than the boredom of a common soldier for long stretches at a time. In parts that may be a bit confusing for those without knowledge of Irish nationalism, Barry, for the uninitiated, blends the complicated Easter rebellion against the English in 1916, the Ulster contigent, Redmond, and what became known rather inaccurately as the "Sinn Feiners" into his tale of Willie, mostly in the trenches for most of four years, sometimes on leave as short as to a French bordello, longer to field and soldiers' hospitals, and then home to Dublin--once to be summoned as he is going back to Flanders off the ship to fight against his fellow Irishmen in his hometown's streets. His confidant, Fr Buckley, gains exceptional resonance as one who has elected to take on the spiritual and mental burdens alongside the men in the trenches.
The tone of the omniscient style Barry selects, as in "Whereabouts," approaches near-biblical cadences and its sensitivity and literacy jars against the more earthbound nature of the less eloquent Tommie's struggle. Still, Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" is one of the most popular reads shared among the entrenched, and the level of reading that even the average private may have attained makes for a thoughtful observation, given the large number of memoirists, poets, and novelists who reported on this awful four years.
This disjunction, in fact, works effectively to heighten the breach between the longing the inarticulate soul keeps within the most physical and expletive-laden of moments, and the terror and wonder that coincide or juxtapose on the battlefield, when months of pent-up tedium collide with moments of terror. And when the fog of war is man-made as well as natural, all the more cruel become the grey vistas the soldiers slog and gaze across.
Barry's best in descriptions that strain to make new scenes out of all too familiar settings. Out of dozens of examples, here's three: "It was line officers only that knew the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line." (146) "There was no town or village on the anatomy of the human body--if the body could be considered a country--that had not tried the experiment of a bullet entering there." (171) "The poor lads of the Royal Army Medical Corps, stripped to the waist, hauled down those morsels of humanity away if they were still breathing and gabbing and praying. The remnants were left to decorate the way. Hands, legs, heads, chests, all kicked over to the side of the road, half sunk in the destitute mud. And front ends of horses and horses' heads sunk in with filthy foams of maggots and that violent smell; horses that looked even in death faithful and soft." (231) For comparison, a graphic novel, "Charley's War," about a WWI soldier and his horse, has just been published and would make a fine comparison. A more scholarly counterpart to Willie's letters could be "The Moynihan Brothers in Peace and War 1909-1918," (Irish Academic Press, 2004) in which two Kerrymen exchange correspondence; one brother's service on the front almost exactly overlaps that of Willie Dunne's.
Speaking of books, Barry appends a brief list of the recently growing shelf of books devoted to the long-taboo subject of Irish involvement in the Great War. His research is evident but never overwhelms the limited but representative experience of Willie. Coolies from China, Algerians, Africans join the Europeans and their descendants in this world conflict, and the fruits of such globalisation mobilised for the first time culminate in one of the most poetic and horrifying vignettes I have ever read. Once, summed up in less than ten pages, a yellow day meets a yellow cloud.