The Wars

I’m ashamed to admit that my experience with the works of late, great Canadian author Timothy Findley is woefully limited. Previously, I had read only Pilgrim, his penultimate novel. And I was a little disappointed by it. Which is not to say that it wasn’t a good book, so much as I was hoping for something quite different based on the premise:

It is 1912 and Pilgrim has been admitted to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich, Switzerland, having failed – once again – to commit suicide. Over the next two years, it is up to Carl Jung, self-professed mystical scientist of the mind, to help Pilgrim unlock his unconsciousness, etched as it is with the myriad sufferings and hopes of history. Is Pilgrim mad, or is he condemned to live forever, witness to the terrible tragedy and beauty of the human condition? Both intimate and expansive in its scope, with an absorbing parade of characters – mythic, fictional, and historical – Pilgrim is a fiercely original and powerful story from one of our most distinguished artists.

Not that this description is wholly inaccurate, but in execution both the narrative and characters were so ephemeral that I never felt I quite had a grasp on it. Maybe that was the point.

The Wars by Timothy FindleyRegardless, I picked up The Wars, which is generally considered to be the book that put Findley on the map, and which I have always heard mentioned in connection with his name over the years.

This one worked better for me. Still a somewhat nebulous compared to more traditional narratives, this time the style seems deliberate, considered and necessary. The Wars is a simple story about a Canadian boy, Robert Ross, who went to fight in World War I and was ultimately destroyed by it. But it is told from the very specific and singular perspective of a historian researching Ross, and in that most elusive of voices, the second person. Because of these choices, the books feels like it is as much exploring the limitations of history and biography and the very nature of narrative as it is about the story unfolding.

As for the story unfolding, it’s strong. Simple, but honest and observant of those little oddities of human nature, and those little moments that shape a life.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable and entirely unsurprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It feels like it comes from the same school as M*A*S*H and Slaughterhouse Five (two of my favourites) with a soupçon of Hemingway. It most resembles the former two in its depiction of “war is hell” (though The Wars errs on the side of the tragic rather than the madcap, and the subtle rather than the outwardly preachy), and the latter in its exploration of relationships touched by war. A quiet enough read considering the momentous subject matter it touches on, The Wars has both faded and lingered with me in the way that most solidly good books do.

From the archives, written May 12th, 2006.

1 comment to The Wars

  • Melly

    Now, this review I think I missed previously. I read The Wars in I think OAC in high school, and I honestly didn’t love it at first reading. So much so that I was always reluctant to read anything else written by Timothy Findley. However, I re-read, got over whatever was bugging me when I was 17 and count Findley as one of my faves. I had the same issues with Pilgrim, but somehow I think by that time I was so used to his style that I am pretty sure not having a grasp was indeed, part of the point. 😉

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