The compelling story of a young man’s odyssey through two wars and two occupations.
As I read Anne Lazurko’s powerful, new historical novel, What Is Written on the Tongue, I found myself repeatedly asking, “what would I do?” What would I do to save myself and my family if my country was suddenly occupied by malevolent forces? What would I do if I was conscripted into a war of occupation that had no moral purpose?
Would I resist or collaborate? Would I obey orders, lay down arms, or run and try to escape?
In the era of Trump and Bolsonaro, with right wing populist parties on the rise and basic human rights under constant siege, these are not remote historical questions. They’re extraordinarily relevant ones. And they’re the questions Lazurko’s main character, Sam Vandenberg, must ask himself as he navigates his way through Nazi occupied Holland as a teenager, only to be conscripted into the army sent to fight rebels seeking independence, in Dutch-occupied Indonesia.
In less than ten years, Sam is catapulted from a victim to an agent of occupation and into worlds where nothing is as it seems. Worlds in which collaborators turn out to be heroes, enemies transform into friends and brothers-in-arms mutate into monsters. Worlds where there is no easy definition of what it means to be “a good man.”
Part of the book’s power is its deft handling of the voice and scene changes as chapters shift between a third person account of Sam’s time in Indonesia, and his first person telling of the years spent with his family in occupied Holland and as a forced labourer in Germany, during the Second World War. It’s a tricky structure to manage, because it risks losing the reader if one time frame is more engaging than the other.
Not so with this book. Here, the parallel stories of occupation resonate and bounce off each other, creating an ever deeper, more complex picture of the toll exacted by occupation and war.
But it is the choices made in the storytelling and the handling of the war in Indonesia that are most impressive. Sam’s war of occupation is less about the Indonesian guerilla forces—which for the most part remain hidden, melting into the heat and humidity of a jungle as familiar to them as it is alien and life-threatening to the Dutch—and more about Sam’s own psychological war and the senseless, sometimes horrendous violence perpetrated by his comrades on innocent civilians and each other.
It’s a brilliant choice, not only because it’s an accurate portrayal of what traditional military forces face when engaged with an elusive guerilla army, but also because it puts the full burden of guilt and blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of the European colonizers.
One of the most evocative scenes in the novel encapsulates the insanity of a war where the enemy is essentially invisible, whether it lurks in the jungle or prowls around inside your head.
Out on night patrol, Sam and two Indonesian comrades enter a clearing that looks like a rebel hideout. What it turns out to be is a pavilion of the dead, where poor villagers place the bodies of loved ones in a bamboo shed and up in the treetops, until they can afford a proper burial.
When the rest of the unit arrives in the clearing, they immediately open fire on the ghostly figures hovering in the trees: “Shrouds and bones and bodies fall, flutter to the ground, hitting not with a thud, but gently, like angels, or demons. The men ignore Darma and Raj yelling at them to stop, instead firing blindly into the trees as though making up for every rebel they’ve been unable to find, every suspect villager they didn’t shoot, unloading their anger and fear on the already dead.”
It’s a macabre and haunting scene, one of many that leads to the slow unravelling of a young man already scarred by war and occupation.
But if it all sounds a little bleak and grim, there are moments of relief and redemption found in Sam’s love of a young Javanese woman named Sari, and his almost desperate need to protect a little boy called Taufik. Made almost incandescent by his essential joy and goodness, Taufik is mute and like Sam, unable speak of the trauma he has suffered and continues to suffer. They are brothers, bonded not by blood but by shared experience and a need to love and be loved, in circumstances that would deny it.
What is Written on the Tongue isn’t an easy novel, but I highly recommend that you read it, because what it asks us to do is remember, not only the past, but also that the better angels of our own natures can transform into demons, given the right circumstances. That those we condemn as monsters may actually live inside of us. And that our salvation, like Sam’s, rests only in our ability to love and forgive, both ourselves and each other.
What is Written on the Tongue
by Anne Lazurko
ECW Press, April 2022, 336 p.p., $22.95 Preorder at: https://ecwpress.com/collections/literary/products/what-is-written-on-the-tongue
Erna Buffie is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of the novel, Let Us Be True, listed by CBC Books as one the best historical novels of 2017. Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including Room, The Vagrant Review of New Fiction and Prairie Fire.