Boredom Punctuated by Terror

The Human Body, by Paolo Giordano, (Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin), 336 pages, released October 2, 2014

Paolo Giodano’s The Human Body has been on my to-read list since the moment I first heard about it. Originally published in Italy, this book traces the experiences of a small company of Italian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I’ve read and been impressed by  several recent novels coming out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You. As a result, I was curious to see one of these conflicts from a European perspective—what would be the similarities and differences in story arc, in characterization, in understanding of the purpose and the value of the conflict?

As it turns out, there are far more similarities than differences. This isn’t to say that I found The Human Body predictable. What was predictable (and simultaneously completely unpredictable) was the experiences of the soldiers: the blurred line between comaraderie and bullying, the long stretches of boredom broken by moments of terror, the day-to-day discomforts of life in a war zone.

The character’s in Giordano’s novel include a young man who has enlisted despite his widowed mother’s protests; a career soldier whose selfishness has kept him alive and whose cruelties have kept him amused; a soldier attempting to build a relationship with a woman he’s only met on line; a female soldier trying to make her way in this male-dominated environment; a low-ranking officer and part-time gigolo who’s just discovered one of this clients is pregnant; a medic who copes by keeping himself half-numbed through a mix of drugs and indifference. In one sense these characters are “types,” variations on the platoon members we’ve come to expect in films and books about war. But Giordano’s writing makes each of them engaging and individual.

At the heart of this novel lies an ill-chosen mission to accompany a group of Afghan drivers who have worked for the Italian forces as they leave the war zone in hopes of returning home: a thirty mile trip that would take less than an hour outside of a war zone and that takes nearly a week in the novel’s setting. Movement is slow, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are everywhere, and the soldiers suffer from a variety of illnesses and injuries even before the mission starts.

The Human Body makes for gripping, but uneasy reading. One worries about the fates of different characters, especially as their weaknesses become clear. Giordano’s work is an extraordinary accomplishment rendered into beautiful English by translator Anne Milano Appel.

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