Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lit-Quick: Tides Of War by Steven Pressfield

The soldier thinks he knows fear. Tell that to the farmer. I have corked off at battle's eve and snoozed sound as stone; now on my landsman's bunk I tossed, sleepless as Cerberus. The farmer greets the dawn with one query only: what calamity has struck overnight?

So intones Polemides, the chief narrator of Stephen Pressfield's Tides Of War (A). Polemides then provides a litany of the farmer's woes which is as entertaining and as depressing as anything George Carlin cooked up in his prime, and concludes with a punchline that is note-perfect in its absurdity and acuity. The jacket blurbs extol Pressfield's portraits of ancient battle, and although they are what the reader remembers most immediately Pressfield's real genius is exercised in his gradually persuading the reader of a seemingly "foreign" point of view.

Why would a farmer, who has already experienced the torments of the battlefield, return to war on an enterprise that seems shaky from the outset? How, then, do the survivors of the debacle then persuade themselves to re-engage in battle? How do we, the "Army Of One" generation, understand a culture that commits itself to war through an ideology cultivated beneath a skein of temperamental gods? What sort of genius takes possession of the one man who acts as catalyst for all these terrible engagements? Pressfield's evocation of the emotional lives and metaphysical musings of his ancient subjects subtlety lulls the modern reader into a state of self-recognition. And that, I think, is what makes Stephen Pressfield one of America's finest living novelists.

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