Certain sorts of people are attracted to the life and death workplace that is the war zone. For some it is mother’s milk to survive in the midst of death, whether as a combatant, NGO-er like Red Cross or MSF field personnel, or as a journalist. It can act as a drug, making one feel more alive than the hum-drum of a stable home with 2.5 kids and a spouse, in the same environment every day. The recent film, The Hurt Locker, captures that well. For good or ill, some need the rush of adventure, excitement, danger. Ana Menendez’ novel, The Last War, tells of the impact of that addiction on a marriage. Being apart can cause a huge strain, but never knowing if the next phone call will be to inform you of your spouse’s death can be too much for any relationship to bear. She writes from experience.
The Last War seems to be a memoir, thinly veiled as a novel, about the demise of Menendez’s marriage to New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. It is an effective telling, well written, interesting. If you read Filkins’ recent, excellent book, The Forever War—and if you haven’t, consider yourself scolded—you will have a sense of the life he was drawn to. In that book he paints a compelling portrait of contemporary warfare, but omits a lot about his personal affairs. Menendez writes about the other side of that life, what happens to the one left behind, telling some tales about hubby’s theoretical extracurricular activities and the effects they had on his home and hearth. It is a beautifully written, engaging and rather sad tale in which her main character receives an anonymous letter informing her of her husband’s infidelity while covering the war in Iraq.
One might expect that the husband, here dubbed Wonderboy, would come off badly, a bit of revenge lit perhaps. But that is not the case. Menendez writes about the strain of that life on a marriage, about what it is to live a semi-nomadic existence, when all the world is one’s home, but there is not really any one place where you always hang your hat. And coping with the disaffection for the quotidian experienced not only by Wonderboy, but by Margarita, Menendez’s avatar, who is positioned here as a war photographer. Can the rootless ever put down roots? Or are they condemned to constantly roll with the wind, tumbleweed-style, always at war with boredom? And it is not only Wonderboy who has chosen a wandering life. Margarita has made the same choice, in response to similar needs. Such choices can kill, not just bodies, but spirits, and certainly marriages.
The Last War is a very good read and a very worthwhile companion read to The Forever War. Do read both. You won’t regret it.