Jan/Feb 2014 Reviews & Interviews

Granta 125: After the War

Granta 125: After the War
John Freeman, Editor.
Granta Publications. 2013. 256 pp.
ISBN 978 1 905881 71 0 .

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! We all live in the aftermath of war. For some, the memories are recent and raw. For others, distance in time and place have lessened their impact. And some of the writers in Granta magazine's After The War find that the denial and deceits now practiced in the countries they knew in wartime are as horrifying as the war itself. Not all of the pieces in this edition of Granta, however, are factual. There is reportage, memoir, fiction, poetry, and photographs. There is also an on-line edition which includes some of the pieces from the magazine but also additional writing and interviews. Curiously, I found some of the pieces on the web-pages more innovative and interesting than those in the hard copy.

Chanelle Benz's "The Diplomat's Daughter," for example, is not an easy read, both because of its style and its content, but its style is unique and it is horribly vivid. In contrast, Michael W. Clune's, "World War II Has Never Ended," is a delightfully enjoyable story about boys' games. Few of the hard-copy essays are as light-hearted. There is, of course, a lot more to be found in the hard-copy magazine.

Because the magazine is dealing in various ways with historical events, recorded or remembered or re-told, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. This is not the case with Lindsey Hilsum's, "The Rainy Season," which is clearly factual. Hilsum was the only English-speaking correspondent in Rwanda when the genocide began. Returning to the country ten years later, she records her impressions of the "new" country now emerging. But, just as the land hides corpses that wash up whenever the river floods, she comes to believe that the modern facade hides deep feelings of anger and pain.

Guilt and the manipulation of the past is also the theme of Romesh Gunesekera's "Mess," which is taken from his new collection of stories to be published in 2014. It tells of a military encounter in Jaffna. In an interview that is included in the on-line edition of the magazine, Gunesekera says that he wanted to experiment with the way in which, because of our view of the world and the way others appear to us, one person may appear more guilty than another. Vasantha, his narrator, tells us at the beginning and at the end of his account that the war in Sri Lanka is over, but this encounter, he says, was "an encounter with the war within: guilt, which I am beginning to see riddles everything." Having met the characters and seen and heard them in action, we are left to decide for ourselves who is most guilty.

Yiyun Li also fictionalizes the aftermath of war, telling the story of Hui, who is married, has a small daughter, and lives in America. In China, where she grew up, Hui's Chinese parents had separated because of her mother's communist ideals and her father's lack of commitment. But her mother's revolutionary zeal also suppressed her maternal feelings, and Hui remembers that her mother invented a "good" twin whose behavior Hui could never match. She remembers more recently her own brief "indiscretion" with a friend's husband and her attempted suicide. Now, from a ward in a psychiatric hospital, she recalls a window overlooking the gardens around a hospital in Beijing—a place where dreams would be replaced by skyscrapers—a place where she might have acted differently and so evaded "all that came between the dream of life and the dream of death."

For some authors, memory is all too vivid. Others, like Hari Kunzru, who reports on his own experience of Disaster Tourism, live the horrors vicariously, visiting places like the area devastated by Superstorm Sandy, Ground Zero, or, in his case, Reactor 4 at Chernobyl. Kunzru ponders the fascination such places exert and the emergence of industries, games, and films that play on this fascination.

Paul Auster wonders whether his own childhood experiences fostered his love of books. He remembers air-raid drills at school where he and his friends traded picture cards of post-war flying machines, and he remembers seeing supersonic jets fly overhead but never being afraid that Communist bombs or rockets might fall on him. At about the same age, he remembers becoming aware that he was a Jew and so "had no part to play in American life," since American heroes, apart from a few boxers, were never Jewish. Jewish relatives and their past were part of his life, but that was something apart from his daily life. Only at summer camp, after a very personal and embarrassing incident when he was eight, did he learn that other people had hidden aspects to their lives. Perhaps, he suggests, he came to love books because the secrets of the characters were always "in the end, revealed."

There is an enormous variety of stories, cultures, styles, and experiences in this issue of Granta. The topic may be depressing, but the quality of the offerings is uniformly high.


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