Thursday , May 23 2024

Book Review: ‘Rumors of Peace’ by Ella Leffland – Two Tales in One – Part Two

(Continued from Book Review: Rumors of Peace – Part One)
The remainder of the novel, which traces Suse’s moral and intellectual awakening as she’s about to enter adulthood, follows the same trajectory. At almost every step of the way, Suse’s realizations nearly always not only parallel our own realizations but, what’s more often than not, surpass them.

Take, for instance, her observation that it’s not only “the refugees … and the soldiers [who get killed, but also] army horses” – for which statement she was reprimanded by Helen Maria, admittedly Suse’s “intellectual superior,” that “their pain is simply physical.” Or her remark further down that “just [because] the war’s happening [somewhere else… while we’re sitting here … it doesn’t matter if you can’t see it because you know it” – which again was met by Helen Maria’s rather smug repartee that “imagination is all very well and good, but you mustn’t overdo it. You can’t dwell on misery and death.”

Clearly, Suse is displaying here a far greater sensibility and awareness than her would-be mentor. And although she expresses utter amazement once she learns from Helen Maria that in the midst of World War One in Verdun, come Christmas Day, “the allied soldiers climbed out of their trenches and the Germans out of theirs, and throwing their rifles to the mud, they proceeded to have a jolly game of soccer.”

Or, that during the same war, “Yank and Kraut [were] sharing rations, exchanging family snapshots” and that war was just a game based in economics, “the natural result of Du Pont’s and Krupp’s devotion to luxury”. For all of that, Suse’s rather youthful naiveté, quite appropriate for her age, is far more refreshing and more promising in the long run than the bitter cynicism of her somewhat-revered senior.

As the novel progresses, we can’t help but notice Suse’s sensibility, her awareness, her sense of identification with people and things outside of her immediate gravitational field (which, prior to now, would affect only her and her alone) extend outwards to encompass greater and greater chunks of her ever-expanding world. The novelist compares it to a “ripple effect,” another apt metaphor to depict Suse’s steady albeit slow progress toward a full-fledged adulthood.

Once Suse becomes fully aware of this powerful centrifugal force pulling her outwards away from the inner sanctum of her solitary being to the very limits of a knowable universe, her views on virtually every subject under the sun undergo a complete turnabout at an exponential rate. Not only do her schoolmates or teachers, some of whom she’d barely tolerate till now, become new objects of interest and sustained attention, if not empathy or downright approval, most of her views on the subject matter of politics and war become overturned as well, if only to keep pace with the “new Suse.”

Such things come to mind as her rather healthy skepticism about the UN, for instance, concerning its presumed ability “to free future generations from the desolation of war.” Not by changing human nature – an impossible task, at that – but simply by drawing out whatever’s good in it (and hope for the best, Suse must have thought). That skepticism, we soon learn, was well-founded once Suse became aware of the unthinkable horrors of the concentration camps, a permanent black mark for all the world to see, a mark that could never ever be erased from anyone’s memory once you’ve seen it.

The very operation of those camps, the job of running them day in and day out, couldn’t be the result of one mastermind and however few acquiescent and capable administrators, but surely required willful cooperation of a great many – all outstanding citizens by any other measure except for this one pitiful instance, whereby all were consumed as if by frenzy and caught in the fray. So how can there be any good to be drawn out of anyone, Suse reasoned, if there was no good in them to begin with? Even the latest news-bulletins, all boasting of so many Japanese and Germans dead (as compared to the far fewer number of casualties on the part of the Allies) would leave her stone-cold, however much she looked forward to the end of this bloody war.

And why all the exclamation marks appended to those headlines, highlighting Allies’ victories at the expense of so many dead suffered by the Axis? If there’s one thing she’d learned from Helen Maria it was that soldiers didn’t really hate one another. they were merely pawns. A life is a life, whether German, Japanese or American! Clearly, Suse’s responses, her awareness of what mattered were ahead of the times, ahead, at any rate, of the average adult’s comprehension and understanding. In a word, Suse Hansen could put us all to shame!

It is in this sense, therefore, that the narrative aspect of Rumors of Peace (i.e., the charting of the protagonist’s intellectual and moral/emotional development), important as it may be, is but a subtheme and therefore subordinate to the novelist’s overarching theme and purpose. And that purpose simply is the positing of Suse Hansen (all along, and certainly once she reaches her zenith) as the culmination of human wisdom and perspective, an “ideal” vantage point we humans can possibly muster as we ponder on the atrocities and the utter futility of war.

As to Suse Hansen, she’s but a type, a decoy, a foil perhaps – the novelist’s clever artifice to conjure up her Jedi mind trick.

The last episode of the novel coincides with the final act of the war – the dropping of an A-bomb on Hiroshima. Suse had been visiting Helen Maria at the time when the news broke out, and it had literally stunned her. Yet, Helen Maria offered no consolation whatever beyond her usual pseudo-philosophical cynicism. Tired of her platitudes, Suse seeks Egon Kravitz, the last person on earth who might possibly console her in her state of need and make sense of things, if only to lighten her heart.

Their meeting is anticlimactic, resulting in utter disappointment. When queried about the US action, Egon, just like Helen Maria before him, can’t seem to rise above the normal level of the adult-brand of cynicism. The war is over at last, he counters. Look at the green hills out there, the birds flying about, peace all around. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Yes, of course, I did, she replies. But what I want and how to make certain it will remain so are two different things, she’s thinking to herself – a concern regarding which Egon has no answer whatever.

And here we come to what’s perhaps the greatest irony of the novel. Egon Kravitz (aged 27) is Jewish. He doesn’t know what happened to his two brothers, still in Germany when the war broke out. He does know, just as Suse Hansen knows, what transpired in Nazi concentration camps – over six million Jews exterminated in gas chambers or by other means. Egon Kravitz ought to be up in arms against a comparable action in Hiroshima, yet he isn’t; just like Helen Maria’s, his responses are laconic, almost empty. It is Suse in fact who expresses outrage, not Egon Kravitz who ought to be as incensed as she is, if not more so.

If one had to attribute a moral to Ms. Leffland’s novel, a distillation of the novelist’s main theme, it would have to be this. Emotions and morality – our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong – may drive the intellect to provide us with answers, satisfactory answers not only to justify our rightful concerns but also to offer us anything by way of solution to some of the existential questions which faced humankind from the dawn of history. Yet, what we find is that there are no answers, not even from the most sophisticated adults. There never had been. There are only questions!

Ultimately, Rumors of Peace is a manifesto to hope – hope that someday we might overturn the dark pages of our recorded past and find our way at last.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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