09-05-13

Pat Barker: Toby's Room

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When I bought this book in a bookshop in Canterbury, I had no idea of the Virginia Woolf link. I just like Pat Barker's style and the way she writes about the impact of WWI on young lives, and next year we commemmorate the Rape of Leuven in 1914. For the moment the University Archive of the Leuven University collects family pieces that have a link with WWI to scan them and add them to its image collection, and a friend of me and my wife prepares the big commemorative expo that will be held in our town. So, more than enough reasons to buy this book, I think. The link with Virginia is the artist community of Charleston Farmhouse, where part of the book plays. Virginia had lots of friends there and was a frequent visitor. http://www.charleston.org.uk/

I started reading the book during a professional stay in the Black Forest and was despite the lack of time that week very quickly fascinated by it, and I loved every letter. It talks about a brother who gets missing on a French battlefield, his sister who is a talented artist and helps surgeons reconstruct the faces of wounded soldiers and the people around them. I love the way how Pat Barker mixes the years before the war with the terrible impact it had on the lives of these young people, and how she describes the hope and optimism of that generation and how it is shattered to pieces. The book is written so well that it sometimes seems that you are in these peoples minds. 

Pat Barker wrote more books about this periode (the Regeneration trilogy is brilliant and is a must-read, certainly now) and the way she contrasts the normality of these soldier-boys with the terrible things they endured is brilliant. There are scenes in these books I will never forget...

My own grandfather got shot in the leg during the fighting in Werchter in 1914, one of the few times the Belgian Army actually got into an offensive. He was hospitalised in Antwerp and later carried into neutral Holland where he spent the next four years in captivity together with about 35.000 other Belgian soldiers. After the war they were seen as deserters, despite the fact that most them were ordered to cross the Dutch border by their officers. They lost part of their civil rights and never got their wages for these four years. As my grandfather was literally carried over the border on a stretcher he was one of only 400 who did get their wages (400 francs) and his front-chevron as a proof that he fought bravely at the front during one year. It also gave him the right to have a 50% reduction when travelling by train...

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 In order to get his rights, grandfather needed proof that he was never a deserter and this is the confirmation he got from the army administration. 12 months at the front, 40 months behind the lines and, most important, no unauthorised period in Holland with surfeit of all rights. He was,they say, quite proud of this. We still have the papers for his war medal and his front chevron, so he must have thought it very important.

 

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