I TELL a friend that I am reviewing a book about killing in war. Like me, she spent years writing a war novel. “Ah,” she says, “the book it will need to measure itself against is Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing. I happen to have it to hand.” She doesn’t even put the phone down: “I’m opening it at random. Here we are: ‘I became a f..king animal. I started f..king putting f..king heads on poles. Leaving f..king notes for the motherf..kers. Digging up f..king graves. I didn’t give a f..k any more. Y’know I wanted — They wanted a f..king hero, so I gave it to them. They wanted f..king body count, so I gave them body count.”‘ There is a certain comic pleasure in hearing this Vietnam veteran’s words delivered with such relish by someone normally so refined. That passage recalls one of the more penetrating and disturbing novels about war, Junichiro Tanizaki’s Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935). In 16th-century Japan, his mock history recounts, warriors collected the heads of vanquished enemies. In the heat of battle, they would quickly slice off the nose so that it could be matched at leisure, as in some horrible fairytale, with its face. This mutilated trophy was known as a “woman-head”. Having covertly watched the women of the castle where he spent his childhood dressing and perfuming these grimacing heads, Terukatsu develops the sexual obsession that feeds his career of violence. The Secret History’s achievement lies in the dark complexity of its vision of war; in its explicit linking of sex and death; in its awareness that warriors develop specific cultures and languages, even aesthetics, of violence; and perhaps most brilliantly, in recognising the central place in wars of nostalgia.
more from Delia Falconer at The Australian here.