For as long as novels have existed, writers have found the juxtaposition of marriages and war difficult to resist. The contrast is hard to miss: an institution that brings two people together brought into comparison with an event that puts thousands, if not millions, of people at violent odds with one another. Wars can strain the bonds of matrimony: sometimes by separating two people and sometimes by placing them on opposite sides of a conflict. The overlap of a marriage and a war in fiction can also heighten some of the ongoing strains of a relationship–what had been everyday stresses can be magnified; the events that some take for granted can suddenly turn hazardous–even potentially fatal.
War also doesn’t pause everything else in life: the stresses that press on different sides of a marriage don’t vanish when the smell of gunpowder and the sound of artillery can be heard in the distance. Would Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair be as effective if it was set against a backdrop other than the Blitz? Would Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement be as effective without the specter of the First World War hovering over it? One of the most wrenching scenes in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart comes when its protagonist, imprisoned for a mission gone wrong in the Second World War, learns the fate of his family back in England. Here, too, the separation caused by war had terrible effects–even for those not ostensibly involved in combat.
Whether fictional characters are enmeshed in the midst of fighting or are watching events unfold from a continent away, the effects of war on marriages can be tremendous. One institution is a longstanding one where destruction abounds; the other is one that, by its nature, unites.
Tensions are high from the beginning of Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage, a precisely-written, deeply moving novel that takes civil war in Sir Lanka as its setting. The title heightens the already-unnerving mood: if the marriage we’re about to read about is going to be a brief one, what exactly does that imply about the fate of either (or both) of the two characters who are getting married? Initially, it follows a man named Dinesh; as the novel opens, he’s living in a small community of people who are doing their best to stay out of the fray from both sides of the war. Encountering one side could lead to immediate death; encountering the other might well lead to conscription, and the likelihood of a violent death somewhere down the line. Dinesh’s life is one where seemingly quotidian activities–cleaning one’s body, washing one’s clothes–are fraught with danger.
A passage midway through the book illustrates the effects of the conflict on Dinesh’s psyche. For him, there is no moment but the present; the past has faded, both out of circumstance and out of necessity.
He could no longer remember the faces of his mother, father, and brother, could no longer remember anything of the routine of their lives or the mood in which they had lived, and anything he said about that time would have been devoid of substance, like black-and-white outlines in a children’s coloring book.
Later, in flashbacks, the reader is given glimpses of his pre-war life and the ways in which his family was taken from him through the conflict. Throughout the novel, Arudpragasam emphasizes the precariousness of existence in the midst of a war zone. The opening scene of the book features a severely wounded six-year-old and an amputation; it’s written in meticulous prose that makes the horrors of war incredibly tangible without feeling sensationalistic or sentimental.
The marriage of the title enters into the equation early in the book: Mr. Somasundaram, an older man living in the same camp as Dinesh, asks him to marry his daughter Ganga, as he believes that it will help keep her safer in the midst of the war. Whether this plan will actually work is left in doubt from the beginning. “Most probably they would both be killed before the fighting was finished,” Arudpragasam writes as Dinesh mulls over the situation in which he’s found himself.
What follows in the novel is the story of how Dinesh and Ganga adjust to the condition of being married, even as the precariousness of their lives continues. A scene in which the two attempt to sleep together is fraught with confusion and ambiguity.
They were married now. In a way it was only natural for them to have desire, to want to satisfy themselves for the first time, though whether or not Ganga really felt this way Dinesh wanted to be completely sure.
That question, of the line between desire and the performance of desire due to the expectation of desire, makes for a thoroughly haunting passage. The prose isolates each movement and each question in turn. This change in circumstance further complicates a way of life that already has numerous questions hanging over it. What does an institution that’s intended to last until death mean in a world in which death can come at any moment? Is the simulation of love preferable, under these conditions, than no love at all?
A very different juxtaposition of war and conflict occurs in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. It follows the Bloch family, who reside in Washington, D.C., through a series of familial crises that threaten the matrimonial bonds between husband and wife Jacob and Julia. But there are also geopolitical matters that play into things as well: the novel’s first sentence is, “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” (Isaac is the grandfather of the aforementioned Jacob.) Throughout the novel, Foer parallels global dangers with more intimate conflicts and dilemmas.
At first, that opening line about Israel seems like it could be misdirection. One of the Bloch children takes part in an epic Model United Nations competition in which a loose nuclear weapon plays a prominent part. This is interwoven with the slow disintegration of Jacob and Julia’s marriage, where questions of infidelity and long-running frustrations have come to the forefront. As it turns out, it wasn’t misdirection: halfway through the novel, something terrible happens. “[T]he thing about the worst possible scenario is that by definition it can’t be anticipated,” Foer writes. In this case, that scenario is a massive earthquake hits Israel, which ratchets up basically every political tension in the Middle East to an exponential degree.
This approach sometimes calls to mind Ian McEwan’s Saturday, in which a well-off family’s internal conflicts and external crises took place as a protest against the Iraq War occurred nearby. (The social and political resonances of McEwan’s novel are well-described by this Christopher Hitchens review from 2005.) Foer’s book can be a bit unwieldy in places, however–at times, it’s unclear if the Blochs’ conflicts are meant to be seen as trivial compared with the conflict brewing on the other side of the ocean, or if Foer is seeking a deeper connection between the two. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book comes late in it, when Israel’s government asks Jews living overseas to fly there and join in military operations. Jacob feels torn between a sense of duty to his family and the idea of obligation–though whether that’s something deeply felt or a case of an intellectual looking to tap into some sort of alpha-male energy is left ambiguous. At its best, this is a novel of ideas and ideals, and how events spiraling into chaos across the world can leave them adrift.
In Pauline Chiziane’s The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy (translated into English by David Brookshaw), war is over, but its memory and aftereffects are still very tangible for the novel’s characters. The book is narrated by Rami, a women married to a police officer, Tony, in Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo. Over the course of the novel, Rami learns that Tony is, in fact, maintaining relationships with several other women across the city. They find common ground in their anger with him, and form a series of deep bonds among themselves. This description, on paper, sounds like the stuff of a brisk comedy of manners. That doesn’t really do justice to the plot that unfolds over this novel, however; though there are certainly satirical elements to it, Chiziane has a much greater scope in mind.
The novel’s first paragraph evokes violence, and the memory of violence: “An explosion can be heard somewhere over there. A bomb. A landline. It must be the war returning once again.” This novel was first published in 2002; for the adult characters in the novel, the memory of their country’s civil war, which ended ten years before, would be all too current. Rami’s premonition of war is soon shaken away, as she realizes that the sound she heard is not a prelude to a greater conflict.
But for the novel, the questions of love, fidelity, and control are not distinct from the aftermath of war. Late in the book, Rami mentions a woman she met with five children, all of whom are now grown.
The eldest, a slim and elegant mulatto, is the product of the Portuguese, who raped her during the colonial war. The second, a black, strong and graceful like a warrior, is the fruit of another rape by the freedom fighters in the same colonial war. The third, another mulatto, as cute as a cat, is the product of the white Rhodesian commandos who pillaged the area in order to destroy the bases of the Zimbabwe freedom fighters. The fourth is from the rebels who waged the civil war in the interior of the country.
The woman’s fifth son, Rami tells us, is the only one whose father the mother “slept with out of love.” It’s a powerful moment, and one in which the novel’s disparate strands on family, marriage, and intimacy come together with the recent history alluded to on its opening page.
These novels in particular detail very different marriages and very different conflicts. A happy marriage can be derailed by the presence of a distant conflict, or it can be healed by it. But whether they’re next door or an ocean away, conflicts can also make characters question who they are–or affirm certain aspects of one’s identity. It’s the sort of thing that makes for gripping drama that covers a host of essential themes–and zeroes in on questions that are essential to our basic humanity.