I’ve just picked up a relatively new novel on the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. Matterhorn already looks like a classic and I’m only six pages into it. And it’s quite a tome – running to nearly 600 pages – reportedly taking Marlantes 30 years to pen.
He describes war in authentic and minute detail. The time Marlantes has taken on this epic has ensured he has crafted a truly accurate depiction of the horrors, futility and sometimes boredom of war and what it must be like to endure combat. After all, a graduate of Yale University and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes did serve as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valour, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals.
No doubt Matterhorn will be adapted in to a film to rival Apocalypse Now, which was based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.
There have been other novels about the Vietnam war, including Go Tell it to the Spartans (Daniel Ford) and Meditations in Green (Stephen Wright) but none seem to have achieved the status of true classic, which I’m sure Marlantes’ book will.
Even in the opening few pages the reader gets a good indication of what Bravo Company has to deal with to stay alive. Marlantes sets his themes out early. It’s not simply the enemy, or the suggestion that it is present that engenders fear. There is the natural world around them, the monsoon rain, the mud, the jungle and the leeches – not just on the body but in it. One Marine gets a leech stuck in his penis.
Marlantes’ protagonist, 19 year-old 2nd Lieutenant Waino Mellas, is also contending with fear, boredom, routine drudgery and racial tension amongst his men. All this is common to fighting men throughout the major conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries from WWI to the current conflict in Afghanistan.