Italian author Paolo Giordano’s follow up to the excellent The Solitude of Prime Numbers. It is a novel of war — both militarily as well as emotionally and psychologically — which has drawn many comparisons to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
The novel follows a battalion of Italian soldiers stationed at the Forward Operating Base in a remote and dangerous region of Afghanistan. For the most part, they don’t see much, if any, action and they deal with their boredom and fear in numerous ways. The bulk of the novel focuses on the interaction between the differing personalities, which range in everything from the most introverted to the most brash, Alpha-Male. The reader knows from the beginning that something terrible is going to happen and as we follow these characters as they bide their time during their tour of duty, the tension slowly builds, a slow burn towards a horrific and tragic event; and event that may not have had to happen at all.
The individual characters are brilliantly drawn, ultra realistic. There’s Iteri, a virgin who spent his last night in Italy sharing a hotel bed with his overprotective and overbearing mother; Cerdena, the requisite “Alpha-Male” who thrives on military life, hides his fear and his emotions through his swaggering ways and often picks on poor Iteri about his virginity; Giulia, the only female soldier in the unit, who tries to navigate the difficulties of being just that in a male dominated world (which she manages to easily do) but also finds herself the object of affection from two of her male comrades; and Egitto, a medical officer, who treats his tour of duty as a way to escape what he views as an even more dangerous situation at home.
Each and every one of these characters are brought to life as real, living people, devoid of the caricature that one might find in other war novels. Most of them are young, barely out of high school, who find themselves in a very unfamiliar world, very far from home. In essence, although together as a military unit, each one of them finds themselves to be terribly alone, dealing with personal issues at home or within their own psyches. Their loneliness is further amplified by their individual interactions with their friends and loved ones at home for whom the war barely registers on their radar. When the mission they are sent on goes horribly wrong, each of them must deal with the consequences and effects in their own way; and when some of them return home, they find they are no less alone in the world and do whatever they must in order to completely change their lives, to erase everything that had come before their harrowing experience.
What separates this novel from most other war novels is the focus on the human aspect of the characters. There’s plenty of military life explored here, in all its complexities and bureaucratic nonsense. It isn’t primarily a “shoot-em-up” novel (although the one sole act of violence is horrific to contemplate). It is a stark reminder that these brave men and women are your brothers, sisters, friends, loved ones, fathers, sons. It is the human aspect of this novel that strongly resonated with me and Giordano paints each character with such realism that you feel you know them. For they could be people you even know yourself.
One of the great tragedies of the now decade and a half long “War on Terror” is the complete disconnect between those serving and doing the fighting and the rest of us who carry on with our lives as if everything else is happening on a distant planet. Once you get inside these character’s heads, you will further understand the trouble many of them have while trying to reintegrate into civilian life.