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Book Review : Great Novel Examines World War II

June 16, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy (Summit Books; $19.95; 700 pp.)

This book deserves to have an entire book written about it, and, with luck, within the next 20 years that will happen. For now, in this paltry thousand words, let it be said that "Gone to Soldiers" is a landmark piece of literary prose, a totally infuriating narrative, an amazing feat of research, a wildly audacious gesture.

"Gone to Soldiers" is a book by a woman; it is also a "great" novel of World War II. Before now, that would have been a contradiction in terms.

It is as if Marge Piercy, dressed in full battle gear, just pushed herself into the convoy with all the rest of the guys, waved her BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) at them, threatened them with grenades, made them move over, and took her fair place, right up at the front.

"Gone to Soliders"--in depth of feeling, in quality of prose, and in the emotional clouds that it swirls around the reader as he or she gets up, every hundred pages, to stretch or walk around the room, is somewhere between (but directly related to) Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" and Andres Schwartbart's "The Last of the Just." One remembers Mailer's saying that he prayed, as a kid-soldier, to be sent to the Pacific War rather than the European, because Europe had been written to death, and the Pacific War was "new."

More than 40 years later, in Piercy's hands, that war is new again, in its awfulness, its quirkiness, the idiosyncratic peculiarities of each island on the way north to Fortress Japan. And those who have read of the harrowing history of the modern persecution of the Jews in "The Last of the Just" will see some of that unbearable material again, but mitigated here, leavened by moments of Jewish triumph, defiance, joy.

In a somewhat grumpy afterward, Piercy writes that she intended "Gone to Soldiers" to be "a third longer than it is and to include the Soviet Union, but the inability to get a grant to cover that research made me alter my scheme." In this truncated, 700-page (!) version, the author--through 10 different points of view--must content herself with dealing with seven years of congested history of most of the "civilized" world. It really is enough, and more than enough.

Seven Jews. Three Gentiles. The Jews, some of them related, having lived long ago in the same Eastern European village. Aunts and uncles scattered now, to Paris, Shanghai, Detroit. The Gentiles, lower- and upper-middle class, well-educated, but battered by America's Great Depression. All of them present such an interesting set of choices! In Paris, a conventional Jewish family dissolves because of the war: The father departs to fight in the Zionist Resistance in the South of France. A young twin is smuggled to Detroit to her working-class aunt and uncle; the mother and other twin are snared by the Nazis and deported to the East. The older sister, an intellectual pain-in-the-neck, by a series of quarrels and painful circumstances is cut loose and goes as well to the South of France where she too becomes a heroine of the Resistance.

What "Gone to Soldiers" lacks are those standard, straight-forward, I-threw-my-grenade, he-went-at-me-with-his- bazooka kind of scene. There is plenty of action (some reviewers have already objected to the war scenes as being far too graphic), but the battles are surpassingly real. The horrors of the North Atlantic and the "Maltese Run" have never been so clearly and horribly put on paper.

Piercy has a distinct world view. This is and always has been, she opines, a world of interlocking oppression: the ruling class oppresses the workers, the Gentiles the Jews, the husbands the wives, the parents the children, the whites the blacks, and so on. What World War II, in her opinion, did was kick that machine apart, take off the lid. So if World War II was dreadful in some ways, it was freeing and glorious in others.

To say that all this sets you thinking is an understatement. There are some mistakes and anachronisms here: all the Mandarin language lessons in the world wouldn't let Daniel Balaban speak Chinese in Shanghai streets, where the Wu dialect is spoken. People didn't say "Sorry about that" until Maxwell Smart began saying it in the '60s. But these are the world's tiniest bugs in the world's largest salad. This is an amazing book!

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