My Little War Louis Paul Boon (trans. Paul Vincent). Dalkey Archive Press. $12.95, 120pp.
We in America are, and have been for more than eight years now, living in wartime. Yet, it’s often easy for those of us who aren’t on or in direct contact with the front lines to forget that. Even though we know there’s a war going on, it is happening over there, being experienced by them.
Not so in My Little War, written by Belgian-born Louis Paul Boon in 1947 and just now translated into English. Taking place in German-occupied Belgium during World War II, the book portrays air raids taking place in the sky and uniformed soldiers appearing at the door. Though the people in this book can’t not think about the war, My Little War isn’t necessarily about war, and it isn’t necessarily about those people alive during World War II either. It is first and foremost a book about people, one that happens to have war as its backdrop.
Stylistically, My Little War feels more like a journal than a novel. It is a series of short entries (not even stories) that recount things like having a conversation with a meat inspector, remembering a kid who got picked on, and talking to a kid who can’t speak very well. The accounts, all titled and told in the first person, are brief, none longer than 3 or 4 pages, and they read as much like things Boon read or overheard as they do things he experienced. No one story builds upon another. No plotlines unfold. And no characters feel knowable. In fact, many of the characters are simply referred to as What’s-his-name. Without a discernible arc or strong characters, My Little War confounds expectations.
Obviously, Boon had no interest in writing a novel in the traditional form. In fact, Boon’s literary aspirations on the whole seem pedestrian. The prose is far from lyrical, and many of the characters are nameless and faceless, almost like afterthoughts. The story doesn’t seem to be building toward anything, and the only emotional punch it packs comes early on by way of the wartime backdrop.
I was halfway through this slim volume after one sitting, and I could not say I was enjoying it—but then a funny thing started happening. As one anonymous character after another was introduced, and as each mundane situation was placed on top of the one before it, a story I didn’t expect started taking shape. As I said earlier, in our current wartime it has become easy to not think about events in the Middle East for long stretches of time. Yet this is not because we don’t care so much as because there’s a little bit of the survival instinct at work away from the front lines, too. War, and the pain of war, what war means, is too much to live with. War interrupts, and so those of us who can afford to think about something else. And that, the survival instinct of everyday people, is what My Little War is about. In addition to the war, the people in the book have problems that have nothing to do with the war: bullies, a stutter, boredom, to name a few. It’s as if to say life is hard, with or without air raids. Which isn’t really a profound thought, but Boon comes at it from a new and interesting way. Lines that might appear raw or half-developed or even throwaway in another context here begin to feel deep and knowing and perfect—like they couldn’t be said any other way.
“Outside the door of the hospital, frozen shut, people stand stamping their feet and pressing their hands over their ears, and it’s pointless saying it’s cold, since everyone knows it’s cold—but come on, what else is there for one person to say to another?”
“You say that you’ll look him up, but you never do. And that’s the saddest thing in life—the saddest thing, that is, when there are no planes around . . . when the red flares aren’t floating up there and the air-raid siren hasn’t sounded and the bombs aren’t falling and you aren’t standing there feeling a tightness round your heart, nerves frayed, waiting till the toilet’s free—yes, when the planes are gone the saddest thing in your life is that you’ve known so many people in your life that you’ll never see or hear from again.”
“The hardest struggle in life is the struggle not to become bitter.”
These read like gems by the time you get to them and show the novel to be simultaneously bigger than any one of its unnamed characters and small enough to be about each of them individually. War plays a role in the book, sets a stage, but Boon is writing more about people simply existing amongst other people, people overcoming anxiety and finding or creating purpose, people loving and laughing, people telling stories.
Late in the book, Boon breaks through the fourth wall in a way that doesn’t feel postmodern or meta, just honest and apt. In one passage, he writes, “And Jan who’s reading these pages asks me if the comma key on my typewriter is broken—of course not I say—so why do you use so few, he asks,” which, after the fact, made each aspect of the novel feel like a decision. Boon was in on the joke, if you will. And it made me wonder if his primary goal was to comment on war and human nature and how, though war results from human nature, it is anathema to it. War changes people. You cannot experience it and return to what you previously considered normal. The story Boon is telling couldn’t have been told in the straightforward form of traditional novels.
In another account, Boon begins, “If I’ve usually said ‘I’ in this book, it was just a way of presenting things, what I really meant was ‘you.’” And by the end I felt he really did: he meant me when the book was in my hands, and I believe he means you when it’s in yours and the other you when it’s in yours. My Little War is about all of us, regardless of our war experience.
The book is decidedly unliterary and really not at all interested in dispensing philosophy. Still, I believe the best way to sum up what I took from it would be to quote Plato, the great writer and philosopher, who said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” You can do far worse than leave your reader with that.
Billy Thompson is a writer living in Media, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Confluence and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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