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When everything is war

The Caprices, Sabina Murray, Houghton Mifflin: 208 pp., $13 paper

January 12, 2003|Gloria Emerson | Gloria Emerson received the 1978 National Book Award for nonfiction for "Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins From the Vietnam War." She is the author, most recently, of "Loving Graham Greene: A Novel."

Soldiers in a war sometimes feel that they are famished, sleepwalking, dehydrated, dazed and doomed, but they can do amazing things in their pitiful state. They can keep killing. Sabina Murray, whose nine short stories stem from the Pacific campaign during World War II, knows a huge amount about armies and war, but in "The Caprices," she also writes about civilians caught in the conflicts: an elderly woman must manage to drag heavy bundles, a little girl plans a murder. She reveals war in a way that few writers do, and with such force and beauty and authenticity that I was astonished by this collection.

It is not clear to me how a young woman, raised in Australia until her family returned to the Philippines, has been able to so acutely imagine the unimaginable. Surely, she has never seen a shot fired or known firsthand the roughness and despair of soldiers, yet "The Caprices" equals the achievement of Stephen Crane, also a civilian.

She knows, for example that some men need war, and quite love it. In a wonderful story, "Guinea," two American soldiers, Francino and Burns, are lost in the jungle with a dying Japanese prisoner of war, who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan and loves baseball. Francino and Burns do not like each other, although each man needs the other, in a desperate way. She writes:

"Burns must have always been tightly wound and the war had rewarded this; Burns's superiors liked him, on the ready, alert. He was courting a mental breakdown. New Guinea was the perfect place for him. Burns was one of those men who would be made by war, whose last vestiges of childhood would be burned out of him, bullet by bullet. People like Burns were grateful for such abundant, sanctioned violence. A month earlier, Francino would have felt sorry for him."

Murray is a highly intelligent writer, and she obliges us to understand, if we do not already, that wars do not end tidily for the combatants. After having done their duty, many are unfit for civilian life and must find a way to conceal this, dragging their ghastly memories around like an iron suitcase shackled to the wrist. In the story "Walkabout," a young Australian named Bob is in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia where the sick captives work 10 hours a day building railroad tracks. They must also bury or burn the dead, all the dead. Cholera has come. His dear brother Mark has died. Murray writes:

"Now the news was that the war was ending. An odd tension filled the camp then ....He was hauling a body to the pit for burial, a wet beriberi. Wet beriberis didn't burn. He had the arms of the bloated man and was struggling up a muddy slope when the body burst, drenching him and his companion with the stagnant juices. For a moment he thought he would cry, but it passed. What was he hoping for? The long road that wound its way through the flat bush toward his family home would only bring the war back to a place that he had hoped to protect from it. He would no longer be a person but a reminder of absences -- Mark's and his own. He was now an ugly thing, a sore upon the landscape, a battered body which told a story that no one wished to hear."

Perhaps to lighten the sorrow and tension in her beautiful short stories, Murray has included one that consists of sketches of members of a large Filipino family that endured the war. It is here that she stumbles. The story is called "Intramuros," for the neighborhood in Manila that was bound by stone walls, a legacy of the Spaniards. The idea is all right, but her characters are not wonderful in the least. It is true that people often say dumb things, or not much at all, in talking about very bad times, but "Intramuros" is the spongy imperfect part of a first-rate book. Murray has said it is about her own family, but her other characters are the ones I will remember.

She begins "The Caprices" describing a dying village under occupation, the dust, the absence of children even though it is 3 p.m., the shut Chinese shopkeeper's door, the fly on a horse that will shortly be eaten. And then, with the power she possesses so richly, Murray writes: "What you are witnessing is war."

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