‘The Illuminations’ by Andrew O’Hagan
Faber & Faber; $29.99
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The Illuminations is an unusually fine war novel from a writer with considerable credentials: four previous highly acclaimed novels, the unauthorised life of Julian Assange, literary journalism, non-fiction and work for television. Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel is a soldier’s-eye view of Afghanistan. British troops, full of jostling rivalries and deprecating humour, traverse a country that has been contested since ancient times.
It begins in the muted environment of a Scottish housing complex, where two older women, Anne and Maureen, manage a friendship in the face of Anne’s progression into dementia. Anne’s apparent eccentricities make sense in the light of her history, which is gradually uncovered by her grandson, Luke.
Luke, a captain in the British Army, has returned from Afghanistan after a catastrophic deployment in which one of his young soldiers died. He is bitter, explaining to his mother:
There’s no nation, Mum. There’s only people surfing the Net … It’s a game, Mum. A great game. We only believed in it for as long as it lasted. I love my country for its hills and its inventions, not for its sense of injury, not for its sentimental dream that there’s nobody like us.
“The Great Game” usually describes British and Russian 19th-century imperialist manoeuvres in Afghanistan and elsewhere – here, Luke uses the term ironically: nationalism, in his view, is a delusion.
The novel is preoccupied with questions of reality and perception. Luke’s damaged commanding officer, Major Scullion, argues that “Everything now is pre-experienced,” after a young soldier comments on the flight simulators that were used to deliberately rehearse the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Gaming consciously or otherwise prepares young men for combat and allows them to slip back and forth between the simulation and the reality of military life. Luke’s soldiers write their final letters home: “A quick note just in case. Two seconds. They wrote them while waiting for their turn on Xbox.” Afghanistan can be hallucinatory: the heat distorts perception, and illusion and experience are very close. For men like Major Scullion, military action in Afghanistan is informed by the “pre-experience” of British military experience in that country.
The Illuminations is a demonstration of what can be done, and done very well, with a war novel that deals with what is often unclear in life: politics and history, personal and family history, betrayal and forgiveness, illness and memory, and the ordinary delusions and even hallucinations caused by old age. It’s an important novel that gives us a genuine sense of this latest Afghan war.
Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.