Friday, January 28, 2011

Catch 22 - A Subversive Look At War

What is the general impression that prevails on war?. It raises patriotic, even jingoistic feelings, people feel proud and sad at the same time about the young men who give up their lives in it. This has been propagated through books and other forms of media. But there have been several writers who have taken a different view to this and shown the other side of it. These are not some neo-liberals, who were sitting at home and pontificated about non-violence and other stuff. These were men who were part of the first/second world wars and distilled their experiences in the form of books. Some wrote it as an intense and gritty work, like Erich Maria Remarque and James Jones, some wrote as a mismash of sci-fi and real life horror like kurt vonnegut. And there is Joseph Heller, who wrote 'Catch 22', a monstrously insane work that looks at the horrors of war with huge amounts of black humor. This is a novel which is morbidly funny, terrifying and sad at the same time. Joseph Heller too was part of a airborne bomb squad in the second world war.

The novel is set in world war II, in its later stages when the allies were closing in on the victory. It follows the experiences of a fictional army unit set in Italy. The novel may be bit repetitive for some, since it shows the same event happening from different points of view, but each repetition of the event gives some additional information about it and therefore acts as one stop closer to understanding it. So random events that occur initially, would make more sense as you read through the novel. 

There are lots of characters in the novel who experiences form the bulk of the novel. The main one is 'Yossarian'. Yossaraian is a young man whose main objective is to stay alive at any cost. He is only 28, but feels like he is an old man because everyone is trying to kill him and he may be dead at any time. So if he could be dead at any time, it must mean that he is old. Seems weird, even funny right? Well, this the brand of morbid humor that permeates through this novel. You smile at this line, then you stop, when you think about this 28 year old guy who must be so scared that he says a corny thing like this. The novel is full of such situations where you start laughing, then stop it as the impact of the dark humor hits you. The novel has several such unforgettable characters. The character 'Doc Daneeka' is one, whose fate shows the bureaucratic bull shit that exists in all organisations. What happens to him?  All unit men are bound to fly for a certain amount of time as per rules, but Daneeka arranges things such that he does not fly, but his name is in the log book. But sadly for him, the plane he is supposed to be flying in crashes and he is marked as dead. Even though he is alive and visible to everyone, he is still treated as dead by the bureaucracy. His wife is sent a letter stating about his death and she too accepts it. He cannot leave the unit since he is dead and a dead man cannot be given permission to go out. The whole farce climaxes when Doc Daneeka starts getting convinced that perhaps he is indeed dead since the authorities say so. The  ultimate absurdity. 

Heller also satirizes the business side of war through Milo MinderBinder. He is the mess officer and a true servant of capitalism. He is the true business man who will provide supplies for both the allies and axis, in-fact he opens a separate line of communication between them and gets rights to go anywhere in the war zone for his business activities. He is not bound to anyone, but his own business and the process of making money. His famous saying by which he justifies what he does is "What's good for Milo Minderbinder, is good for the country". Milo could a satirical metaphor for the global villager and the concept of the global village which has come up in recent times.

The most poignant character among them would be 'Major Major Major Major'. Yes this is his name, his father gave him such a name a joke. Well he was doomed from the beginning. Due to this crazy name, he gets promoted very quickly due to some quirk in the computer which mistakes his name for an actual rank. Now he cannot be demoted. So his colleagues and superiors hate him for becoming their equal without doing anything, while he subordinates hate him for outranking them so quickly. He is isolated and no one wants him. Once he decides to participate in a basket ball game in disguise. But his subordinates identify him, but without letting him know about it, they allow him to join and beat him up in the guise of playing the game and thus satisfying their anger against him. This character stops coming in the middle of the book, but is a most poignant one. It also serves to show the cliques/group-ism existing in the army as in every other organisation.

This crazy novel ends with Yossarian deserting the army and paddling away to his escape. One hopes that he made his escape. (Infact Yossarian comes back in one of Heller's later novels, 'Closing Time', but that's for another post). By now you would have got an idea of the themes and the morbid humor in this novel. The novel has been criticized heavily for trivializing the sacrifices of the soldiers, showing them as cowards and being unpatriotic. This could not be further from the truth. In fact this novel looks at the young men who were plucked from their normal lives and plunged into a hell of which they had not idea of how to survive and treats them with the utmost compassion. Neither does it have any overt anti-war propaganda, but through the lives of these young men subverts the concept of war. If anything, the novel would be offensive to the arm-chair theoreticians and nationalists who equate patriotism with people dying for their country, and I am pretty sure that most of these same people would  hesitate to give up their little finger for their country.

If you still find this novel offensive, request you to just think about this. How was your life when you were/are in your early and late twenties. Yes, you would have faced a lot of problems, but how many of us were/are in a situation where we were trying to avoid the next bullet/bomb that could send us to oblivion. How many of us are/were in a situation where we don't know if we would be alive the next hour let alone the next day. Not many I guess. These things are still happening around the world and most of us lucky enough to not been affected by this. Think about the young men who have to confront something which is completely beyond their comprehension. Their reactions to it may make some sense now. You may still dislike the novel, but you would certainly look at it in a different life.

For those, who liked the sound of this post and the novel, read the book. It's a masterpiece.

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