Thursday, February 21, 2008

Moral conundrums in times of war

Resistance by Owen Sheers bravely imagines a plausible scenario where Britain has fallen to German forces after the Führer's fashioned triumph at Normandy in 1944. But wait if you think this is entirely fictitious. Sheers informs us in the Afterword that indeed, an organization of "farmers, vicars, and other local people [had been] trained and prepared to run messages and spy on an occupying German force."

It was called the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Section, an eerie peculiarity given that its members were mandated to work for fourteen days, after which they would have likely faced death. One of the members was George Vater, a personal acquaintance of Sheers, who forms the template for George Bowen in the book. An intelligence spy, Bowen is trained by the eccentric Tommy Atkins in the finer art of subterfuge to take on the Germans.

It is the picturesque Black Mountains valley, "somewhere so still, so bluntly beautiful and yet possessed, within that same beauty, of such a simple, threatening bareness too", where Sheers sets his tale. In the first scene of the novel, the female folk of the Olchon wake to a sudden, disquieting disappearance. Cows wait to be milked, fields wait to be mangled, and wives wait to be given a glimpse of the secretive exercise to which their husbands have committed themselves.

As Sarah Lewis searches for her husband Tom, the absence of whose warm shape next to her cruelly invades her dreams, she learns to carry on her life like before, so that "everything was ready for him to carry on as usual when he came back." Little is she aware that her life is about to be churned thick and fast by circumstances beyond her control.

The ironical absence of any men provides fertile ground for a German occupation force as it descends on the valley. Headed by Captain Albrecht Wolfram, the patrol's presence is emblematic of the inherent contradiction in the running away of the locals, whose status remains unclear till the end. The invading force, a spool of naked male ambition, provides a useful counterpoint to the receding memory of the husbands:

"Sarah sat down. Here they were again. In her house, in the kitchen. The enemy, the invading army. But it was different this time. As if the snow had shed them of all their history. She felt safe. For the first time in over a month, she felt safe."

Indeed, there is the undercurrent of a growing sexual tension between Sarah and Albrecht, and also, something bordering love. There is a tender scene in which he brings her a gramophone on her birthday, an occasion she'd tried to forget, unsuccessfully. So tactile is the writing that the reader can almost commune with young Sarah's need for a lover being constrained by her morality in abiding her marital vows.

The book, therefore, raises disturbing, if unoriginal, questions. As George and Atkins inch towards the valley to quash the occupation (which makes for an interesting sub-plot by itself), the reader is forced to dispute the quality, and even legality, of such a freedom. What should a woman do? Honor the memory of a runaway, if patriotic, husband, or give in to the passionate love of an "enemy"?

This is the first novel of an accomplished poet, and it ties disparate elements and themes with an enviable virtuosity.

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