Tagged: war

Multiple Meanings of Conflict: The Public, the Private, and Art in Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded

In terms of the scale at which conflicts impact the human social sphere, one could have nations and communities organised in terms of class, gender, or race and the individual as the two extremes of the spectrum. Indeed, literature in various parts of the world in various ways has not only been a witness to conflict but has also challenged, contradicted, and perhaps even contributed to forces that play a role not only in the generation of conflict but also in determining the impact of conflict. Alison MacLeod’s 2013 novel Unexploded is an important work because it presents to us a situation which is vital towards understanding the nature of conflicts which mark human societies, as well as appreciating the role that literature, or in general art, plays in relation to conflicts.

At the very outset, I would like to make it clear that Unexploded deals with conflict at several levels but this engagement is not the same everywhere in terms of the detail in the narrative. In the wake of the expected attack by the Germans in the small sea-side English town of Brighton during the Second World War, the inhabitants of the town are shown to be preparing their best in order to mitigate whatever impact the attack might have. These acts of communal preparedness include developing warning systems, preparing for an evacuation if needed, delivering warning messages through radio broadcasts and church sermons, cordoning off the beach in order to reduce the impact of a possible sea-attack, creating temporary shelters etc. – these constitute, what I would like to call, the ‘public’ aspect of the attack. But, as suggested earlier, since the novel treats various levels of the impact of the conflict that it portrays differently, this public aspect of the attack does not hold the attention of its narrative for long, as MacLeod’s attention seems to shift to what can be called the ‘private’ aspect of the impending attack.

What constitutes, then, the private aspect of the conflict in Unexploded? This, I would like to suggest, is constituted by a sense of discovery and introspection that comes to mark the characters in the novel in the wake of the expected attack. The attack seems to trigger self-reflexive thought in the minds of these characters, which leads them to see past events in their lives in new but disturbing light (as in the case of the protagonist of the novel, Evelyn) or to discover facets to their existence which they never thought existed (as in the case of Geoffrey, Evelyn’s husband, and Philip, Evelyn and Geoffrey’s child)1. I would detail one example of such conflict-induced self-analysis with respect to each of these three characters. It must, however, be noted that the locus of the novel’s engagement in terms of the impact that conflicts have on human society is the individual’s psyche and not larger social aggregates.

Geoffrey is the highest-ranking bank official at Brighton when he is told by the administration that the town might face an attack from the Germans. In what is clearly a decision influenced by the existence of a marital bond which, to the sad understanding of both the partners, is sagging yet refusing to break, he voluntarily chooses to take up the position of the Superintendent of the Camp that has come up for housing unlawful migrants, political prisoners etc. of Jewish and German/Italian origins. This weakens the bond even further as Evelyn comes to believe that Geoffrey has left her alone with Philip to face the impending attack. Such a circumstance leads her to rethink what Geoffrey has stood for in his life till the point that he chooses to take up the assignment. She realises that he might have always held apparent anti-Semitic sentiments, much like her own parents. She looks for reasons that could explain the physical confrontation that he had at the ball with a Jewish acquaintance but cannot come up with anything. This is a new aspect to the character of Geoffrey for her, one that she hasn’t been acquainted with earlier.

Similarly, post the difficult but sad emotional realisation that his marriage with Evelyn is not working out at all, Geoffrey starts visiting the prostitute Leah when he takes the weekly train to London to submit the report of the Camp. This n itself is a telling sign that he now finds himself perfectly capable of loving someone other than Evelyn. In fact, he realises that he has perhaps never really loved Evelyn; he has just needed her to recover emotionally from a disturbed childhood in the face of the major discord that characterised the marriage of his parents. Apart from Evelyn and Geoffrey, Unexploded presents to the readers the perspective of their child, Philip. Philip, who has recently realised that Brighton might be attacked, begins to recognise social and emotional resonances which he did not register earlier. Not only does he begin to yearn for an elder brother like the one that his friend Orson has in the face of this emerging difficult circumstance but also asks his parents questions which clearly have no easy answers. In the face of the propaganda broadcasts by Mr. Haw Haw (William Joyce) in the programme ‘Germany Calling’ through Berlin Radio where Winston Churchill is called a Jew, he wonders if there is something wrong with their family butcher who is actually of Jewish origin.

There is a noteworthy aspect to what has been detailed in the preceding few paragraphs as the private feature of the conflict in the novel. The conflict-induced re-visitation of memory or the discovery of unknown aspects of existence, emotional or social, in Unexploded suggests that ‘larger’ conflicts in terms of their socio-economic and psychic impact, as in this case the Second World War, are inextricably linked to pre-existing social beliefs and prejudices in a particular society (England in this instance) and strives to detail the exact mechanisms through which the latter often, a particular society (England in this instance) and strives to detail the exact mechanisms through which the latter often, but sadly, snow-balls into a large-scale violent confrontation. This is not to deny the obvious politics of economic gain and selfishness that commonly marks the first attempts at confrontation; instead, it is only to suggest that the novel has been able to achieve this, crucially, by not highlighting the moments when Brighton is attacked by Hitler’s forces. Unexploded enlists three such attacks (one on the 15th of July 1940 (place in Brighton unspecified), the second on the cinema, and the third on the Common Ground) but at no point does it give the reader a realistic depiction of the cruel impact that German air-raids might have had on the town. Consider, for example, “Early in the morning of the 15th of July, the Dornier 17 slipped in under the radar and circled the town. Most lay clenched in their beds. Not us. Don’t get ideas. On your way now. Bugger off. Imagine it” (MacLeod 151) (emphasis mine). The narrator not only refuses to let the Beaumonts (the family name that Geoffrey, Evelyn, and Philip carry) face the consequences but even asks the reader to ‘imagine’ what might have happened. What follows in the novel is a fairly powerful realistic description of destruction in a war-zone but the reader is never told in clear terms that this is what happened at Brighton.

However, it would not be appropriate to think that the contribution of Unexploded to our understanding of the impact of conflicts is limited to suggesting, through its various characters, that the same conflict can mean different things to different people, and highlighting connections that complicate an easy binary between the public and the private – at least in terms of the latter leading to the former as I have attempted to underline in this paper. This is because the novel also attempts to deal with the often tenuous relationship that exists between art and conflict. What role does art play in situations ridden with conflict, with Brighton facing attacks during the Second World War? Does it have any recuperative potential? Unexploded, in several ways, can be seen as an exploration of the complicated dynamics (that it reveals as) existing between art and conflict. Here, I am focussing on art because it seems to me that all other forces that have conventionally been seen as stabilising and curative in a society seem to have broken down in the novel. Relationships within the family have been rendered meaningless, social bonds with neighbours and friends have become pointless (Mrs. Darlymple, the neighbour of the Beaumonts, does not like them, to say the least), and administrative cooperation now largely manifests itself in the form of strict power-ridden hierarchies (as revealed in the brief story about Geoffrey’s bureaucrat friend Tom who is struggling with his associates). As such, it seems that only literature and art possess the ability to give some direction to society as we see it in Brighton.

Unexploded reveals to the reader the way in which art interacts with social forces in a conflict-ridden society by repeatedly – almost in a manner that suggests a pattern (especially in the last two books of the novel) – positing the ‘artist’ in situations where his/her art helps an-other individual who is the victim of conflict or is going to be one. This is not to suggest that the artist him/herself is distanced from the conflict; far from it, it is to imply that at that critical moment when assistance is rendered, the victim is in a far more vulnerable position compared to the artist. Several examples can be given but keeping the limitations of space in mind, I would like to focus here on the instance of the assistance that Mr. Pirazzini, the Italian fugitive tailor housed at Geoffrey’s Migrant Camp who was persecuted by Mussolini’s men, receives from Evelyn and Otto, the German-Jewish painter who is Pirazzini’s fellow inmate at the Camp. Old Pirazzini, separated from his wife who is at another Camp whose location is unspecified, dies a painful death in the difficult living conditions. Evelyn, to her husband’s surprise and eventual resistance, reads from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937) to Pirazzini, which brings considerable relief to him. Similarly, after he passes away, Otto not only arranges for him to have a respectable burial but also sketches his nails and other body parts as reminders of the difficult times that people endure in the face of conflicts. These paintings later become the way through which Evelyn realises the hardships that people at the Camp had to endure, which lead her to see beyond the apparent deceptions of Geoffrey that have always bridled her growth as an individual in her own right, apart from her husband. Thus, being directed towards others, art in the novel always has a social purpose to serve, and a goal of communal service to perform. It rarely, if at all, serves the purposes of the individual artist him/herself. The locus of its operation is always the social community and almost never the individual.

It would be a mistake however to conclude that Unexploded represents an unequivocal affirmation of the recuperative power of art in the face of conflict. In fact, art seems to be losing the battle which it has waged against conflict in the novel. Leah, the musician, is forced to take up prostitution as a means of sustaining the livelihood of her son and herself at Brighton when she is compelled to migrate into the town. Evelyn reports to Otto (to whom also she has read from The Years) that Virginia Woolf has committed suicide by drowning herself, and the latter himself dies in a freak manner by taking a pill given to him deceptively by Orson and Philip after having created a mural depicting the story of King David, Bathsheba, and Uriah from the Second Book of Samuel on the walls of the Church at Brighton.

I would like to conclude by making a brief but what, according to me, is the most important point regarding the relationship between art and conflict that Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded depicts. If the reader looks closely at the manner in which the novel concludes, the affirmation of Evelyn’s apparently unbreakable strength of character and fortitude – “Something painful welled in her chest and her heart laboured beneath her ribs while, unknown, within, at the end of a fine fuse of flesh and blood, life pulsed.” (MacLeod 337) (emphasis mine) – in the face of Otto’s death (she was seen by Geoffrey in a suggestively physical situation with Otto which leads to a physical fight between Geoffrey and Otto)2, her husband’s suggested death, and the lack of information about Philip rings hollow. Both the circumstances and the forces of memory and history seem stacked against her. The novel, in an almost allegorical re-telling of the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba through Geoffrey, Otto, and Evelyn suggests that even as times change, individuals keep playing pre-destined roles in stories that are shown to be relevant over millennia. Consider, for instance, Evelyn’s reflections in the Chapel after Otto’s death, “Was she seeing on these three walls the story of Bathsheba, Uriah, and King David or another story, their own, lying in wait within the ancient one, ready to ambush them all: this war, their passion, the Camp’s high roof…?” (MacLeoad 336). What then is the basis on which MacLeod presents Evelyn at the end of the novel as the strong, resilient woman who survives? This is never specified to the reader.

The contradiction between the resilient individual and the multitude of forces that oppose her/him detailed above, however, would lead a critically discerning reader to wonder about the relevance of art for the purpose of the survival of an individual’s subjectivity, because art in the novel is repeatedly shown to have a (limited) social purpose that entails the sacrifice of the individual’s subjectivity in the process. In other words, if the individual is the unit marking human existence who is rendered the most vulnerable when exposed to conflict-ridden situations, then how will his/her psyche regain stability if the only recuperative force present in the society, i.e. art, serves a social and communal purpose by operating at a scale necessarily larger than the individual? Thus, to conclude, it should suffice to say that in context of the examination of the relationship between conflict and literature, Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded is a powerful work because it exposes the reader to a situation where individual subjectivity and the social purpose served by art seem to stand opposed to each other in the face of conflict. Needless to state, it would be very dangerous for us to make an easy and uncritical choice that would value one over the other.

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Notes:

1 Anthony Cummins, in his review of Unexploded for The Telegraph (20.08.14), has tried to locate this tendency of revisiting the past, particularly in Evelyn and Geoffrey, in terms of the title of the novel. He says, “The novel’s title is suggestive of how the war ignites elements that are secretly combustible in the Beaumonts’ 12-year marriage.”
2 Reviewers have noted that Evelyn is the most rounded and detailed character in the novel. Contra her, they note that the detailing of Otto’s character is the price that the novel pays for this authorial decision. Cummins, for instance, says, “…but there’s also something unpalatable about how it [Unexploded] puts an exotic stranger [Otto] on the rack just so the heroine can feel more alive.” In a similar vein, in the review of the novel for The Express (08.09.13), Charlotte Heathcote comments on the treatment of Otto as, “Having suffered savage treatment at the hand of the Nazis, he [Otto] is a prickly, difficult man; he thaws, growing ever closer to Evelyn, yet is arguably never fleshed out.”

Bibliography:

Cummins, Anthony. “Unexploded by Alison MacLeod, review.” Rev. Of Unexploded. The Telegraph (20 August 2013). Web. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10244729/Unexploded-by-Alison-MacLeod-review.html>.
Heathcote, Charlotte. “Book Review: Unexploded.” Rev. of Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod. Sunday Express (8 September 2013). Web. <http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/427869/Book-Review-Unexploded>.
MacLeod, Alison. Unexploded. Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books): London, 2013. Print.

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Chinmaya Lal Thakur is a graduate in English literature from the University of Delhi. He is interested in the politics English literature and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth century. He has also written and presented papers on the cultural politics of contemporary India. He may be contacted at tchinmayalal@gmail.com.