Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Booker in 2005. It tells the story of Willie Dunne, who joins the Dublin Fusiliers in 1914 and serves with them through the war.
The story is mostly told from Willie’s viewpoint, though Barry occasionally moves into the heads of other characters, and sometimes comments explicitly on what Willie does not know as well as what he does know. In the early chapters especially, he uses a heightened sort-of-poetic language. This can occasionally get a bit out of hand (a bit too “Oirish”) when some phrases have more impressive sound than meaning. For instance, Willie was born, Barry tells us, in 1896, “when the century was old and weak.” What does that mean? Can a century be weak? Or is the phrase just there to sound resonant?
To be fair, there is not too much of that kind of thing, though, and Barry has definitely done his research; there is a decent bibliography at the end of the book and most incidents seem to have some factual underpinning.
Parts of the novel are excellent – especially the description of Second Ypres, when Willie and his comrades confront for the first time the new weapon of poison gas. The mud of Third Ypres is also vividly horrible.
I think Barry may over-estimate the originality of his account of the War. In an interview he said:
I must have read some of the English novels when I was young, but I purposely didn’t go back to them for this. I read none of the contemporary novels for the reason I didn’t want to be ‘helped’, if you follow me, which is always a danger. I wanted to write about Willie at the war as if it had never been written about before, because obviously his own experience was one time only and unique. I didn’t want to make a work of literature in that sense, but a sort of remaking of his actual experience – impossible of course, but that seemed the best lamp.
Here Barry seems very unaware that his book, for all its virtues, is in many ways the conventional twenty-first century Great War novel. It has much in common with Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, for example, though it is far better written.
Like Morpurgo’s book, the basic structure of this novel is that of the innocent going to war. While not quite so stupid as Tommo Peaceful, Barry’s Willie is remarkably unsophisticated for a police superintendent’s son. Other soldiers are continually explaining to him the basics of Irish politics, which is a solution to the novelist’s problem of exposition, but means that Barry’s presentation of the character will always be essentially ironic. We are made constantly aware of things that Willie himself does not realise.
There are times when Barry uses Willie’s lack of sophistication very effectively. He pays a visit to the mother of his dead officer, and his inarticulacy tells her more than words could have done. At other times, his naivety becomes an opt-out. He is confronted with problems of loyalty and suffering, but never resolves them, just going doggedly on with what he is told to do. Probably this is what many soldiers did, but it does not make him an entirely satisfactory as a hero placed within complex political situations.
The novel contains the “shot-at-dawn” sequence that seems to be obligatory in any modern Great War novel. In this case the hero-victim is Jesse Kirwan, an Irishman who, after the forceful crushing of the Easter Rising, disassociates himself from the Army, goes on hunger strike and refuses to obey orders. It’s not as ludicrous as Charlie Peaceful being executed for bravely helping his brother, but it doesn’t ring true to me. Wouldn’t someone like him just have deserted? Willie is summoned as a potential character witness for the accused, but can only stand helplessly by. Helplessness is his usual state. This is the standard abject soldier of recent Great War fiction, to whom things happen, but who himself is very rarely able to take any decisive action. Even when he kills a German in hand to hand fighting, it is with a reflex action rather than the product of decision.
What Barry adds to the usual mixture is the Irish angle. Willie’s father is a police superintendent loyal to the crown, whereas Willie, who happens to be in Dublin during the events of Easter 1916, is disturbed by the government’s handling of the uprising. There is a strong sequence when Willie returns to Dublin on leave in 1917. On the one hand, his father resents the fact that he has shown a tiny bit of sympathy for the rebels; on the other hand, as he walks through the city in uniform, small boys throw stones and spit at him.
He ends up reconciled with his conservative father, and sees the war through almost till the end. He has gone through gas, mud, betrayal and shell-shock, and the twin symbols of crown and harp have been symbolically branded on his skin, when he is killed by a random and meaningless stray bullet. Barry thus gives himself a conveniently resonant ending, and avoids having to investigate what would happen when a man like this came home to post-war Ireland and situations where he would have to make political choices.
Barry makes claims for his novel’s veracity (“I was determined to try and show exactly what they went through.”) and the his research has given him a lot of convincing detail, but this is still very much the War seen through twenty-first century spectacles. Inevitably?