11-01-14

Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him. What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature. He'd been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly had ruptured on impact. Before Burns lost consciousness, he'd had time to realize that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh. Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred. Nightly, he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting. Burns on his knees, as Rivers had often seen him, retching up the last ounce of bile, hardly looked like a human being at all. His body seemed to have become merely the skin-and-bone casing for a tormented alimentary canal. His suffering was without purpose or dignity, and yes, Rivers knew exactly what Burns meant when he said that it was a joke.

PAT BARKER, Regeneration,

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I live in Leuven/Louvain. My grandfather was wounded in 1914 in the last Belgian counter-attack before the Yzer. One of the uncles of my mom is buried in Flanders as a soldier, having survived the fighting but not the Spanish flu. An American nurse that fell in love with him paid for his tombstone and my uncle said to me that you can still see it in a small village somewhere in West-Flanders. 100 years ago the Great War passed through Belgium and changed the face of the world.

One of the reasons why I became a historian was my granddad, a farmer and a local politician (responsable for agriculture in a small village, Oppuurs), who spend some time at our home recovering from an operation. He was fond of books and history and I can still picture him reading The Longest Day, and he told lots of stories about his past. Books about the first World War interest me still.

So when Pat Barker won the Booker Price in 1995 with The Ghost Road I deecided to buy all three volumes and start with the first one, Regeneration. It tells the story of an encounter that happened in 1917 in Craiglockhart between an army doctor/psychologist,W.H.R. Rivers, and Siegfried Sassoon, the famous anti-war poet. The stories of the things that happened to soldiers and officers that were so horrible that it drove them mad are described here by a medic, full of compassion, but who's job it was to make them fit to go back, and who believed in what he was doing. We meet several people that are historical, like Rivers himself, and the poets Owen and Sassoon, but also an intriguing fictional figure called Billy Prior.

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In the three books (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road) stories start mixing and building up: Rivers working as an antropologist on Eddystone Island amongst the headhunters, Billy Prior working for Intelligence and wrestling with his past, the difficult position of homosexuals (an eye-opener to me when I read it), Britisch society in 1917-1918, the anti-war movement and how society reacted to it... It's curious that where I remembered these books mainly for the stories about shell-shock and homofobia when I read them in 1995, I now seemed to like the parts about Billy Prior most. The books change when you are rereading them, and for me, a fast reader, this is the best giveaway for a really good book. I will probably continue reading it until I die.

2014 is a good year to start.

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