Monday, January 26, 2015

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Simon Smyth with a review of the Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn. Simon Smyth is a voracious reader and collector of books.

Matterhorn is a novel written by Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and author of the non-fiction book What  it is like to go to war.

The maps, diagrams and glossary give the book the appearance of a more serious, perhaps academic study rather than a novel however the main body of the text is an immediately readable piece of fiction. You find yourself immersing pleasantly into the novel after two or three pages.

Matterhorn is the 28th book I have read on the Vietnam War but only the third one which is fiction. The other two fiction books on the war I have read are The 13th Valley which was written by a journalist who covered the conflict, John Del Vecchio, in 1982 and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War which is written from a Vietnamese perspective. Bao Ninh also fought in the War. Out of the five hundred who went to war with his Glorious 27th Youth Brigade in 1969, he is one of ten who survived.

Clichés stand out almost immediately which I don’t mind as clichés themselves are by definition commonplace and have their origins in fact, for example the story of a new platoon leader replacing a popular one to set the scene at the start.

Marlantes has a story at the start of the book of a man who has had a leech crawl up ‘the hole’ of his penis. In The 13th Valley Del Vecchio depicts the same scenario and has someone try to burn the leech off with a lighter but it goes in deeper whereas in Marlantes’ description they have to cut the penis open to get it out. I explain this only to show why I was put off a little, at the start, by reading a scene that looked copied and had to push myself to continue. Marlantes’ leech scene was more brutal, palpable and possibly better written than Del Vecchio’s and after reading the book this scene is analogous to the two novels on a whole.

Marlantes depicts the personal friendships of the men without gloss and with a heavy dose of realism. He depicts the politics of the war, the personality clashes, relationships which were built and broken. There is a heavy sprinkling of humour some of which is necessarily quite dark but I found myself laughing out loud quite a few times. More often though I felt genuinely emotional reading it, quite saddened many times and angry or frustrated other times with the inhumanity or unfairness of it all.

Marlantes is a master story teller. There is a scene for example in which a fist fight kicks off so suddenly from the readers’ point of view that it feels the way an unexpected punch-up occurs in real life.  

The scale, intensity and method of combat become more extreme with the novel’s progression. With that the seemingly incomprehensible diagrammatic representation of the structure, chain of command and principal characters at the start of the book becomes more and more familiar. In fact I would recommend reading the glossary at the back before even starting the story as it is a wealth of information.

I found myself caring for the men in the book. I got to know their well written, individual personalities, I grew to like them and death when delivered by the author whether swiftly or slowly seems more poignant than other books dealing with mortality. The substance and tone of the book feels almost metaphysical at times.

Matterhorn was first published in 2010 and I am certain that the tone of the book regarding race relations and progressive thinking wouldn’t have been found in one written sooner after the war had ended. The book is written from a twenty first century moral perspective and focus on race relations in such a positive manner and style seems too modern for the reader to get a complete picture. I am sure in the war necessity brought positive relationships between those who were racists at heart but the portrayal of these interactions seems too dissimilar to what I have read before particularly those feelings from the main protagonist’s point of view. It may have been the age of the civil rights movement but the book has lost something valuable by being written from the perspective of the modern age. On the other hand it has gained much from being written recently particularly a certain insight which earlier books can lack.

I don’t know if it was Marlantes’ writing or my own existing feelings or more likely a combination but I didn’t have to remind myself of the fact that the Vietnamese soldiers were just as likable, human and had individual personalities. However if you are to read a book like this I would also recommend Kill Anything that Moves and maybe Giap by Peter MacDonald mainly because this book gives a narrow version of the war and one that can warp one’s understanding of it.

I will leave you with an appropriate quote from the book:

Victory in combat is like sex with a prostitute. For a moment you forget everything in the sudden physical rush, but then you have to pay your money to the woman showing you the door. You see the dirt on the walls and your sorry image in the mirror.  


AM said...

From Beano

Simon ... Sounds like an interesting read..and although I thought my Vietnam days were behind me I think I’ll add this one to my future reading list. Last seen dropping of the bottom of the page............!!

I’m not sure if I have read as many books on Vietnam as Simon but over the years I have amassed quite a total—both fiction and nonfiction. Obviously some stand out more than others and then again some stand head and shoulders above the rest. Dividing them into categories the stand outs for me in the nonfiction department would be The Devil’s Guard by Robert Elford and Sand in the Wind by Robert Roth. The first is I suppose me taking a little liberty. The book relates to the first Indo China War in the early 50’s when French Troops fought the Viet Minh. The action primarily centered around the Battle for Dien Bien Phu. Written in the early seventies the book was a staple war book and a much borrowed/stolen one behind the wire of Long Kesh. Sand in the Wind was written in the 80’s I think—at least that’s when I first read it—and the author was a former combat soldier. My memories of it are that it depicted the closeness of a group of young friends who moved from the safety of small town American life of the mid sixties to the fierceness of battle halfway round the world. Being written by a former combat soldier I feel—at the time—added to its realism and authenticity. Oh and it gave rise to a new phrase amongst us Vietnam-ees in the Cage..”Get Some”!!..used when you thought someone was being less than masculine!!

Despatches by Michael Herr is far and away the best book I have read on Vietnam and would rank up there with the best War books in my opinion. I have went through a half a dozen copies over the years and always try to hang on to a copy. Despatches is a simply stunning portrayal of the futility of War..of the fear..of the realisation that it was the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time..and even within a crowd the isolation that young men felt on the battlefield. I think it was here that I read of “The Thousand Yard Stare” for the first time. Chickenhawk by Robert mason is also worthy of a mention as is Nam by Mark Baker.

Don McCullins photographs of the war can never be forgotten either and you can only marvel at his bravery in capturing those vivid and dramatic images.

For a footnote can I throw in First Blood by David Morrell for a mention....As an allegorical account of the war?... It wasn’t a literary classic by any stretch but it passed a night on the boards for me in late 74!!

AM said...


I enjoyed this. I have yet to read it and am looking forward to it after your review. I have read the other one by him which you mentioned.

Beano, I read Devil's Guard in 77. It was one of those 'must read' ones for sure.

Simon said...

Beano, 'Chickenhawk' was the first book on the Vietnam War I read. It is great as is the second one I read 'Once a Warrior King' by David Donovan. I would be more likely to re-read 'Chickenhawk' or 'Once a Warrior King' than 'Matterhorn' though.

I guess most of the books on the Vietnam War are boys-own style adventure books mostly memoirs but lacking descriptions of the brutality which was meted out on the civilian population.

Dispatches is a classic. Possibly the most well thought of book on the war by critics and other readers.

I read Nam but wouldn't rate it as highly as most of the others I read. There are a few stinkers though. The worst book I ever read of any genre was 'The Heroes that Fell from Grace". An inept book written about an inept attempt at freeing POWs in 1982 by two fanatically religious green berets. They used to have press conferences about the upcoming secret operations. Prayer meetings before every mission, that sort of thing. A true story.

Still today, 20 years after I bought it in a second hand bookshop I sort of want my 2 dollars back.

Fionnuala Perry said...

I must dig this out! Kevin bought it for me a few years back, but sadly I never read it.

AM said...


I loved Nam. I thought it was a great oral history and brought out a side of the US military, US society would rather pretend did not exist.

Simon said...

Don't get me wrong. I thought Nam was a very good book.

There few other oral history books in my collection like "Everything We Had" by Al Santoli or "Inside the LRRPs" by Michael Lee Lanning which I enjoyed more.

No slight on Nam as it was very good and I read them a few years ago so readability rather than value of content was the judge.

DaithiD said...

Dispatches was pure poetry. My favorite Vietnam book was The Tunnels of Cu Chi, about the underground complexes the Viet Cong built (bloody cities in scale) underground to avoid American ordinance, and the troops that had to head into that darkness in pursuit. What the Viet Cong could endure was awe inspiring.

Simon said...

The Tunnels of Cu Chi is excellent also. The construction of those tunnels was an amazing product of determination and ingenuity.

DaithiD you posted a little bit before I could re-write my last comment from 8:43pm so that it made sense. Bad editing on my phone. :(

Anonymous said...

@ Simon good review esp. the excerpt at the end Says it all for all wars. Part of the Cu Chi tunnels have been widened for big fat western arses to crawl through – only a little distance to get the feel of it… They don’t call it the VN war in Viet Nam– it is called the American War. A film I recommend u watch is 4 hours in My Lai It is on youtube. The testimony of the Vietnamese individuals you will never forget. Can promise you that

Vietnamese love their native land songs like we Irish do. I was once on a train in the North of VN when a father and his son spontaneously broke out singing a patriotic song and others joined in.
The following is a famous VN song when the war was raging… This is link to it.
Written by Trinh Cong Son Sung by Khanh Ly (Mai Nguyen her real name – she was born in Hanoi) Every Vietnamese person knows this song. Tells the story of a young girl who fought for her country Here is the translation in english Just go to the youtube video link and read the song as you listen…
Girl, so young, with skin like gold,
Home you love like fields of grain,
Girl, so young, with skin like gold,
On your face fall tears like rain.

Girl, so young, with skin like gold,
Home you love, so do love the weak.
Seated there in dreams of peace,
Proud of home as of your womanhood.

You've never known our land in peace.
You've never known Olden Viet Nam.
You've never sung our village songs.
All you have is an angry heart.

Passing by the village gate,
In the night with guns booming low,
Girl so young, you clutch your heart.
On soft skin a bleeding wound grows.

Girl, so young, with skin like gold,
Home you love like fields of grain,
Girl, so young, with skin like gold,
You love home which is no more.

O! Unfeeling and heartless death.
Dark our land a thousand years.
Home, my sister, you've come alone.
And I, alone, still search for you.
Girl, so young, with skin like gold

Simon said...

Thanks for that Mary. I find it hard to watch stuff on My Lai. Too harrowing. I think I have that video on my computer but couldn't watch it.

I will check the song out later.

General Giap was a formidable opponent. I find his story fascinating. It's worth checking out.

I knew that about the 'American War'. There were so many wars in Vietnam and because it was their country it makes sense to call it that.

It makes less sense for us since if we called it the 'American War' the possibilities would be endless.

DaithiD said...

Mary, that poem must be the VC equivalent to American Sniper?

AM said...

From Beano

Letters Home From Vietnam........

David Higgins said...

Do I sense an empathy with yankee imperialism?

DaithiD said...

I dont think so David, more likely is you are confusing the ‘detection sensation’ with the onset of another IBS flare up?

David Higgins said...

I don't know what you're on about there Daithi. Truth be told I was just pulling your leg, can't get to work for the weather, too much time on my hands.

DaithiD said...

Haha David, whilst I was joking too, I thought you were making a serious point.(My comments read like Le Pen I've told.) Im running tests for a hi frequency trading strategy , takes ages on just one weeks worth of data,so if you have free time I'll give you something to do?

David Higgins said...

I would love to help you Daithi, but I am afraid I am just a humble stonemason. I've no idea what hi frequency trading is. As far your comments reading like Le Pens, I can't see that. I think it is in ingrained in certain aspects of the Irish pysche to see only evil in the actions of the oppressor and only purity in the actions of the oppressed. It does us no good. If you critize Islam, in some circles, you are no better than a Nazi, all shit of course. Any society worth its salt has an obligation to speak out against injustice and not just point out the injustices that are fashionble.