As Michael Hedges might say, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Richard Bausch’s Peace
offers human character assaulted and revealed by the horror of war.
In bleak 1944 Italy, after the Cassino invasion by the Allies, a reconnaissance company stops a farmer’s cart. A German soldier and whore jump out. The German shoots and kills two soldiers before being himself shot dead by a GI. A sergeant shoots the German whore, who is screaming and struggling, even though she presents no threat to the soldiers, a murder, not an act of war.
Three soldiers are sent on a reconnaissance mission, to locate and track retreating German troops. To do this they must scale a nearby mountain, enduring hostile elements, cold, wind, rain, snow as well as a deadly enemy and uncertain local loyalty. In addition to the physical burden of completing their mission, the three carry as well a heavy weight of guilt for the death of the German whore.
A field-promoted corporal, Robert Marson, is tasked with leading two other soldiers on the mission. His is the core journey of self-discovery in this short (171 pps) but powerful novel. Marson is a devout Catholic from DC, an all American boy, a baseball star, eager to return to his wife and 13-month-old daughter.
Private Benny Joyner is a foul-mouthed, bigoted Mid-West misfit, a clarinetist born to a family of farmers.
Saul Asch is a non-practicing Jew, married to the much-older widow next-door in Boston. He suffers a recurring nightmare, from his service in North Africa, of soldiers burning alive in a shelled tank.
The three encounter Angelo, a 70-year-old Italian man with rope-soled shoes, whom they press into service as their guide. It seems likely that his English is much better than he lets on, and despite his claims not to be a Fascist, it is unclear where his sympathies lie. He promises to lead them to the mountaintop but their destination always seems to stretch away into the fog of “near.” The old man clearly serves a symbolic device as well. But is he an angel, death, the emissary of a trial-happy god, some image of an unknown future?
a Crooked shape in brown, a hooded man with dark, thin hands…Under the hood was only the suggestion of a gaunt face in shadow
Mario is a bubbly-optimistic local teen eager to sell the soldiers wine. His presence is in flashback to a time in Salerno, before the company’s trial by cold, wet and hostility. He offers a freshet of youth, of life and hope as an antidote to the old guide. But when his unrealistic hopes are dashed by reality, he fades from the scene.
The three soldiers struggle against the elements, tortured by days of rain, then, as they are climbing a mountain, a shift to biting snow. Each must not only reach the top of the mountain to complete their military and symbolic mission, they are each weighted with personal challenges as well. Marson has a blister on his right heel that pierces him with each step. Joyner has a relentless problem with a severe itch of uncertain origin in his arm that allows him no rest and Asch is afraid to sleep lest he suffer again through his recurring nightmare. Even Angelo must endure a harsh, persistent cough.
Water figures prominently as a thematic device. From relentless rain to potential death by snow, water here offers a challenge to the men. It is only in an isolated passage that we see the expected baptismal rebirth.
Religion plays a major role, or faith, in any case. The Hail Mary is recited in two languages, and one dying GI asks to be baptized. When Joyner says,“Oh, Christ, why does it have to be us,” one can hear, beyond the immediate profanity, the echo of someone else asking “Remove this cup from me.” They discuss why religion is such a widespread human practice. Marson offers up his suffering to God on many occasions, a practice I remember the nuns urging us to adopt back in Catholic elementary school. It rings true here. [I did not check for the expected three days imagery, so have at it.]
The title refers not only to the outer peace, denied by war, and Marson maintaining the peace among the soldiers, but the inner peace of the characters. They all struggle with guilt over the unnecessary death of the whore and defining where their responsibility lies, but also contend with coming to terms with their young and not-quite-formed selves. Marson, older than his charges, has the most metaphysical journey.
The touch of evil, while light, teases, but prompts one to struggle
He closed his eyes and saw again the softly curved dirty legs of the woman jutting from the tall drenched grass and the Kraut with his dying green eyes, such a dark shard of green, and the red hair matted to the white forehead. The look of pure wonder. Something like a thrill went through him, horrible, and then inexpressible, gone, a feather’s touch to his soul, like something reaching for him from the bottom of hell. He looked at the others there with him in the raining dark and was afraid for them, not thinking of himself at all, and it was as if he had already died, and saw them from some other plane of existence.
Peace is also presented in transcendentalist garb:
Morning had come, light spreading across the low sky. The corporal got to his feet and started back toward the road. Just before he reached sight of it, and the others, he stopped, feeling something rise in him. The rain was increasing. The wind had died. The clouds were showing places where sun might come through, or it might not. There was no sound of firing, and the river ran with its steady roar. He waited, breathing slowly.
It was peace. It was the world itself, water rushing near the lip of the bank from the storms, the snow and the winter rain. He felt almost good here. He thought of home, and he could see it, the street, those people. He had found a way back to imagining it. For a few moments he believed that he might simply stay here by this river. He wanted to. It came to him that he had never wanted anything so much. It would be perfectly simple. He would lie down and let the war go on without him, and when it was over and the killings had stopped, he would get up and go home. He thought of going off in the direction the old man had taken, of finding someplace away. Someplace far.
He turned in a small circle and looked at the grass, the rocks, the river, the raining sky with its ragged and torn places, the shining bark of the wet trees all around. He could not think of any prayers now. But every movement felt like a kind of adoration.
I found the characters a little thin at times, but Marson was imbued with enough humanity to keep a reader engaged for the duration.
Bausch offers occasional parallels that highlight the difference in worlds. For example, both Marson and Mario have front-tooth gaps. But Marson’s came from getting hit with a baseball at fifteen while Mario’s came from being pistol whipped by a German.
Thinking about Peace
gave me no rest. I kept recalling, or wondering about elements I might have missed the first time through or ones already noted that continued to resonate long after I had moved on to other books. Peace
is not a lengthy book. Bausch is best known as a short-story writer. Successful short stories must be focused and condensed, trimmed of all but the absolutely necessary. This book reads like that, the density of a shorter work, but with the ambition of a larger one. Peace
is a book of substance, a masterwork from a real pro.