Monday, November 5, 2012

Book Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

A loooong term project by its author, himself a decorated Marine (Navy Cross, Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals), Rhodes scholar and Yale student, Karl Marlantes took some 35 years to write this novel.

Ostensibly a work of fiction it is clearly autobiographic in nature with the author likely changing names to protect the profoundly stupid and not caring to make actual places, locations and dates match reality.  As a work of fiction it is more profound than any non-fiction retelling of events could be.

A very circular work in that events, locations and characters that appear in one section are bound to return in another, under variously different circumstances, Matterhorn is a powerful portrayal of the stupidity and horrors of war--and not any war, but Vietnam in particular.  Others, far more experienced than I, have claimed directly that this novel could not be written about Afghanistan or Iraq today, that yes, the military still does profoundly stupid things and for profoundly stupid reasons but the disregard for individual soldier's well being that was present 40 years ago simply doesn't exist today for the most part.

The bloodshed here is unaltered and the randomness of death is carried throughout.  This is not a novel where you know the hero will survive, every page is filled with the roll of the dice that is survival for anyone partaking in such enterprises.

Matterhorn expresses many of the issues of its time including racial divides and class divisions but shows that at the heart of it all, these divisions melt away when life and death are the only things to be gained and lost on a given day.

At 600 pages, Matterhorn is no quick read but its well worth it and will have you searching Google and other sources to find out if anecdotes Marlantes uses as plot devices, are true (such as: Did US soldiers really get killed and eaten by tigers in Vietnam?  Answer: yup).

It is a book that belongs on your shelf.

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