BOOkS

HELL IN THE TRENCHES, PURGATORY ON LEAVE

In The Sojourn, novelist Alan Cumyn cuts to the mystery at the heart of the Great War

Brian Bethune May 26 2003
BOOkS

HELL IN THE TRENCHES, PURGATORY ON LEAVE

In The Sojourn, novelist Alan Cumyn cuts to the mystery at the heart of the Great War

Brian Bethune May 26 2003

HELL IN THE TRENCHES, PURGATORY ON LEAVE

BOOkS

In The Sojourn, novelist Alan Cumyn cuts to the mystery at the heart of the Great War

BRIAN BETHUNE

FOR ALL its drama, the First World War is not an easy subject to write about. First of all, it’s been done. Anyone delving into it is working under some very long shadows, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Pat Barker’s Booker-winning The Ghost Road. Then there are the different ways in which the war is embedded in nations’ cultural DNA. For Europeans the Great War is now seen as an insane spasm of self-destruction, more like the Black Death than any other armed struggle. In the U.S., by contrast, it’s the Civil War that occupies that traumatic spot in the national memory; the First World War barely scratches surface recall.

In Canada, though, the war is seen as both a slaughterhouse—the grave of more than 60,000 soldiers—and the crucible of the nation, a giant stride on the road from colony to independence. Any Canadian writer tackling the Great War who didn’t realize the profound, and ambiguous, place it holds in our mythology would soon learn, agrees Alan Cumyn, author of The Sojourn (McClelland & Stewart). “People would ask me what I was working on, and I’d tell them,” the softvoiced 43-year-old from Ottawa says of his seventh novel, “and then they’d tell me about their grandfather or great-uncle.”

Cumyn’s own family was key to Sojourn, a beautifully written novel covering three weeks in the life of Pte. Ramsay Crome in 1916. Beginning in the trenches, the book follows Ramsay on a delirious, 10-day leave in London, and then back to the war. Many plot details come from the experiences of Cumyn’s great-uncles, including the astonishing capture of his grandfather’s brother George. Dazed by shelling, George was staggering about in no-man’s land when a voice from the enemy lines asked him where he was from. “Vancouver Island?” repeated the voice in flawless English. “Did you ever fish the Chemainus River? ” After George said yes, the voice—which turned out to belong to a fly-fishing German nobleman who had spent

years on the island—continued: “Well, if you stay down, and work your way towards me, you might just live to fish the Chemainus River again.” He did.

“There are so many great stories from the war,” Cumyn says. “That’s why it deserves revisiting, why every generation has to deal with it.” But the novelist isn’t interested in a broad-brush portrait. “I focus on individual experience. I was intrigued by the idea of taking someone to London and seeing what would happen. Men who wrote about trench life in great detail in their journals went all vague describing their leaves.” Sex acts and drinking binges are part of the reason for that discretion, but the need for oblivion was fuelled by something else—a disconnect, greater than that found in any other war, between front-line and home-front experiences.

In London, Crome is utterly disoriented

by the peaceful life of the city, the flowers in the parks, the comedies in the theatres. Although he’s attracted to his anti-war cousin, Margaret, Crome—altered beyond his own understanding by his experiences—is unable to explain to her that he, too, hates the war, but loves his comrades. He has to return. “We are here for each other, because of each other,” he later writes her.

Cumyn means for the London leave to be the heart of his novel, but he’s not entirely successful. In part that’s because the author hurries his character development—telling readers more than showing them, for instance, that Margaret had “spirit, quiet intelligence and grace.” But the real reason the middle section doesn’t dominate Sojourn is Cumyn’s riveting opening—an account of Crome and his fellows in a literal hell of mud, corpses, exhaustion, snipers, constant shelling and bone-crushing labour. Paced at breakneck speed, and covering only a few days in May, it offers the whole war in miniature, showing—brilliantly—how the anvil of experience forged soldiers’ bonds.

From the perspective of almost a century later, even the Great War’s finest historians increasingly find it incomprehensible, a kind of transcendental mystery. “If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates,” John Keegan concludes in The First World War, “we would be nearer to understanding the mystery of human life.” In The Sojourn, Cumyn’s art lays those loves bare. I?il