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.