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Posts Tagged ‘war’

onwards towards our noble death

Comics seem exceptionally well-suited to handle difficult subjects: war, illness, political turmoil, and angst of any other nature. Or, perhaps, in the hands of talented comic artists, all the different dimensions and subtleties come alive in a particularly evocative way.

Onward Towards our Noble Death by Shigeru Mizuki (originally published in Japanese in 1973), based on his own personal experiences (90% facts, he says) as a recruit in Japan’s Imperial Army, is especially hard to read. This is a fictionalized account of a small unit of the Imperial Army in Rabaul (in what is now Papua New Guinea) fighting the Allied forces. Mizuki’s cast of characters include lower-ranking men who are constantly and baselessly admonished and abused by superiors in a “heirarchical and feudalistic command structure”. No war is without cruelty and death, or hardship and fear, but what makes the manga particularly tragic is a gruesome aspect of the Imperial Army honor system: a unit sent out on a banzai (suicide) charge unexpectedly survives; “since the men’s ‘glorious death’ had already been reported to headquarters, it is sent back to the front with orders not to return”.

The original Japanese title of the book is Soin Gyokusai Seyo!, where gyokusai (translated into “noble death” in the English title) is just a euphemism for a forced (honorable) suicide. I believe gyokusai literally translates to jade shards, or shattering like a jewel. Mizuki draws backgrounds—the warships, the coconut trees on the pristine island, war scenes, and bodies ripped by artillery, with staggering realism, only to contrast them heavily with the highly ‘cartoony’ shapes of the Japanese soldiers. This rendering and the incongruent humor that it injects, only makes the fate of the soldiers even more poignant, if that is possible. In the final pages, two “dilly-dalliers” are forced to commit seppuku, kneeling on the ground in front of their kaishakunin (an second whose job is to assist in the suicide and ensure it is successful).

Onward Towards our Noble Death is a commentary on the absolute depravity of war and the wickedness of codes of (honorable) conduct and reflects the author’s outrage .

Other comics, that make up in emotional depth what they lack in mirth: Blankets, Stitches, Marbles, Palestine, Tangles, Fun Home.

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Maisie Dobbs is a detective. So, I assumed that the eponymous Maisie Dobbs (2003) would be a suspense novel, and not totally without reason – the inner cover proclaims the novel to be of the genre ‘Fiction/Mystery’. Fiction it surely is, mystery – well, there is some mystery, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a mystery novel.

Maisie Dobbs belongs to a poor working class London family and loses her mother at thirteen. Her father, Frankie, fears that he may not be able to afford the education that his gifted daughter surely deserves, or care for her with his limited resources. He sends her to be a junior maid in the aristocratic household of Lord and Lady Compton. Maisie is the sort of child that some parents would be proud of – she is meticulous, hard working, responsible, compassionate, and empathetic. She is also rather strange – unnaturally intuitive and excessively serious – whose idea of fun is to wake up at three in the morning to read The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Lady Rowan Compton, whose philanthropic desires have conveniently been recently awakened by friend and accomplished private detective, Dr. Maurice Blanche, recognizes what a bright girl Maisie is and sets her up as a pupil of Dr. Blanche. Under his tutelage, Maisie is accepted at Cambridge in the autumn of 1914. The War interrupts her education, and Maisie trains at a nurse and serves at the Front in France. After the War, Maisie first works under Dr. Blanche and eventually sets up her own practice as an independent private investigator.

Maisie’s time as a housemaid has much of the upstairs-downstairs drama as in Downton Abbey, only without the scheming footmen and maids. This divide between the aristocratic class and the working class is often brought up in the story. For instance, Maisie is advised by her friend and fellow-maid, Enid, that

… there’s them upstairs, and there’s us downstairs. There’s no middle, never was. So the likes of you and me can’t just move up a bit, if that’s what you think.

When Maisie gains admission to Cambridge, her father is worried that

Maisie might not ever fit in to any station, that she would forever be betwixt and between.

Also noteworthy is that although Cambridge admitted women since the late nineteenth century, women weren’t awarded degrees until 1948. Maisie’s mentor Maurice Blanche expresses his desire for change when he says:

Of course, as I am male, a degree could be conferred upon me. But there will be a time, I hope before too long, when women will also earn degrees for their advanced academic studies.

Enid, Maisie’s friend, is shown to practice her English so as to sound of a higher social class than she actually is – poor working class. Do you remember Henry Higgins’ speech lessons to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady? Dropped aitches were an easy indicator of working class status – the upper class pronounced the ‘h’ sound in words that began with h, while the lower classes did not. And so, Enid practiced her h-ouse, h-ome and h-ope

…convinced that if she was to get anywhere in the world, she had to work quickly to introduce aitches into her spoken language.

Class differences aside, the novel is more about the devastation of war than about the exploits of a female super sleuth. In her dedication at the beginning of the book, author Jacqueline Winspear remembers her grandfather, who “sustained serious leg wounds”, and her grandmother, who was partially blinded, during the First World War. So, it’s not a surprise that the War is a theme throughout most of the book. More specifically, the book does not dwell as much on death and destruction, as on soldiers who suffered grievous facial wounds, and were unable to function fully in society:

With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them had never ended. There were men without noses or jaws, men who searched for light with empty eye  sockets, men with only half a face where once a full-formed smile had beamed.

At the time of the War, plastic surgery was still, if not in infancy then perhaps in adolescence, and many men who suffered facial disfigurement wore tin masks to conceal their shattered faces. See this fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about the physicians and artists at the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department. It also includes a video of a mask being fitted on a soldier.

Maisie, a nurse herself, is no stranger to these horrific injuries…

He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

…or to standard protocol as to how not to express your distress at the sight of these gaping wounds…

Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.

In Sidcup, England… some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

Another tragic aspect of the war that plays an integral role in the plot is the execution of soldiers for desertion and cowardice. Many soldiers were accused of desertion, sentenced to death, and shot dead by their own people. Soldiers who refused to participate in this cruel exercise were likely to suffer the same fate for insubordination.

I am sure I would have enjoyed Maisie Dobbs tremendously while in high school. There is a romance, that I will not get into, which would certainly have appealed to my school-girl sensibilities. While I was certainly moved by the grim aspects of war, I did find the plot and the mystery (or mysteries) rather juvenile. And as for Maisie herself, I did not know what to make out of her. She’s an odd one, a good person to be sure, but very odd. I was also not impressed by the rather single-dimensional characters in the story – they’re all good-hearted and extremely helpful. Winspear might have done a good job describing the dark times of the War, but her characters are too forthcoming to be real.

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