Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Short-a-Day: Robert Coover's "The War Between Sylvania and Freedonia"

[The first in perhaps a daily series of investigations into the use of fiction, specifically the short story.]

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, July 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 95.

"His countrymen lie all about in decomposing heaps, cadavering the landscape like punch lines, fallen flat, to unspeakably filthy jokes."

  • I'm fairly sure this is familiar terrain, the "war-as-a-bad-joke" metaphor, but Coover presents it at what seems like the top of its form. I'm also a sucker of the well-verbed noun, in this case, the very evocative "cadavering." 
"He has, in the name of reason, declared war on madness, but war itself is a madness, so reason, even if it should win, has already lost."
  • Ah, Pyrrhic victories, those flammable, foolish fates. Coover's protagonist, the poor Ambassador Trentino, is in over his head from the start, which is what makes him such a tragic figure. He truly believes himself to be trying to prevent a war, though it is his poor diplomacy and high-minded arrogance that leads to the actual violence. After all, neighboring Freedonia had a bloodless coup--he is the butcher who hypocritically announces that "Freedom is not a joke." 
"He has repeatedly shelled their headquarters, bent on destroying them utterly--he, who believes in diplomacy and abhors all violence, especially that unleashed by the state--he sincerely wished to kill them all."
  • Such frightening sincerity. Is justice blind, or is war? In any case, it's a clever twist on the unreliable narrator, and it is Trentino's awareness and simultaneous ignorance of his own fallacies that elevate the horrors of war to the Dr. Strangelove-like comedies of war. The two, in any case, are never all that far apart, if you get enough distance on it. (Which, to me, should be one of fiction's goals: giving you the sort of distance--perspective--necessary to close in on the hidden truth.)

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