In the shadow of war: The Human Body

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LITERATURE is rife with discussions on the many complexities of war and its effects on everything and everyone whose path it intersects. Some writers choose to look at the physical destruction caused by the action on the battlefield; others focus on its psychological toll, studying the impact war has on the mind and soul. Paolo Giordano’s latest novel, The Human Body, falls in the latter category. The book tells the story of a platoon of Italian soldiers who find themselves living in the shadow of a war in a foreign land. The narrative unfolds in three parts, following its characters as they first see war from a relatively sheltered distance, then experience combat first-hand, and finally try to come to terms with the incident they encountered.

Deployed to a forward operating base in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the Charlie Company are initially faced with the stress of being in a war zone without yet having engaged in combat. Languishing at the base with scant supplies, the young men and women find their own ways of dealing with the inherent loneliness, boredom, and uncertainty of their situation.

Medical Officer Lieutenant Alessandro Egitto, an orthopaedic specialist assigned to the Alpine brigade, is using his deployment as an excuse to run away from his own life and avoid dealing with his dysfunctional family. Troop leader Marshal Antonio René, who used to moonlight as a gigolo, is trying to come to terms with the fact that his side job may lead to him becoming a father. Senior Corporal Major Francesco Caderna is a bully who picks on his underlings and “never knows when it’s time to shut that stupid mouth of his”; the main target of his callous jibes is Corporal Major Roberto Ietri, a young, inexperienced virgin. First Corporal Major Angelo Torsu is struggling with a bout of food poisoning while pining over his virtual girlfriend whom he has never actually met. And Corporal Major Giulia Zampieri, the only female in the platoon, is trying to hold her own in the male-dominated environment, and eventually becomes the subject of two of her colleagues’ attention.

Left to wrestle with their inner demons, the soldiers tussle with their thoughts and concerns, and how each of them copes with their challenges reveals a lot about their character. But then their lives change forever when an ill-advised mission goes awfully awry and the platoon is hurled into a lethal battle. The incident leaves everlasting marks on each individual, irrevocably damaging their psyche and influencing how they behave thereafter.

The Human Body is a character-driven tome, the purpose of which is not to debate the politics of war but to explore its effect on the human mind. Giordano uses the first part of the book to define his characters, then throws them into disarray in the second part, and explores their post-traumatic behaviour in ‘Part Three’. Vignettes — like recollections from Egitto’s past about his once prodigal sister and overbearing parents; instant messages exchanged by Torsu with his online flame, Tersicore89; and emails between Senior Corporal Major Salvatore Camporesi and his wife Flavia — are occasionally featured to bring the characters to life and make them seem more real. The result is an engaging and thought-provoking novel that illustrates the transformation of young individuals as they experience unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Many of the imperfect people that inhabit this book are largely unexceptional, which is what makes them all the more significant and relatable; their tribulations resonate with the readers and generate empathy. But that is also the reason why sometimes the progress seems a little laboured. Giordano takes his time to flesh out his characters and study their proclivities by exploring their lives before, during, and after being thrust into the ugliness of war, and creates some powerful imagery, but while the story is consistently interesting, it is not always riveting, and the pace is probably too slow for some readers. The Italian author has full command of his subject matter and never loses control of his narrative. His exceptional translator Anne Milano Appel does such a good job converting the text from Italian to English that it doesn’t even feel like you are reading a translation. A brief translator’s note at the end helps clarify some of the details and would have been even more helpful if it were placed at the start of the novel.

Ultimately The Human Body is an engaging look at a difficult subject. While the ideas it explores aren’t new or unique, they are delivered very competently and are likely to leave an impact on readers. That said, if you want an action packed, battleground-centred war thriller, then this isn’t the novel for you. This may be a war novel, but its underlying themes and concerns go beyond the parameters of a warzone; Giordano has actually created a subtle yet vivid portrait of being human, and those who enjoy reflective character studies will surely appreciate his efforts.

The Human Body

(NOVEL)

By Paolo Giordano

Translated by Anne Milano Appel

Pamela Dorman Books, USA

336pp.

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