Plucked this one off a second-hand store shelf after recognizing the author’s name. Canadian Mowat had come to my attention for his naturalist-memoir, Never Cry Wolf, first encountered as a successful feature film in the early 1980’s, and read sometime thereafter.
Regarding this present slender volume, I find it somewhat uncomfortable that ‘charming’ is the first word which comes to mind in summarizing a book whose main intent – and emotional effect – is to honestly portray the utter brutality of war. It is a testament to the author’s personality, his innate positivity against all odds (a characteristic evident in …Wolf, as well) and his ability to view whatever is before him with innocence and wonder despite its negative aspects, that reading his memoir is not a depressing experience.
The book chronicles a brief period in Mowat’s life in which he transitions from eager and idealistic youth to terrified veteran of a selection of humanity’s habitual horrors, as evidenced during the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. In the process he displaces conventional notions of glory and heroism with harsher truths of luck, desperation, endurance and the sometimes-terrible adaptations of which the human heart and mind are capable when required to cope with – and, if fortunate, survive – extreme situations.
Right after reading the book, I wrote that “In its own way, this belongs on the shelf with Wiesel’s Night, Krakauer’s Where Men Find Glory, Shehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and Moore and Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. It’s that Good.”
Looking up Mowat’s bio just now though, to check my memory of his bibliography, I come across a very serious criticism that places that judgement in a different light.
Mowat, it seems, was dogged during his career by allegations that his environmentally-themed works were actually more fiction than non-. Wolf researchers hotly contradicted the supposed observations and experimentation in Never Cry Wolf, and even the simple timing and circumstances of his visits to wolf-country were not borne out by available records. Experts on indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic were equally damning on his supposed adventures among those tribes, as were better-credentialed historians on his conjectures about pre-Norse explorations by a people he called ‘The Albans,’ for whom no other record exists. What there apparently are records of, on the other hand, are a quote of Mowat saying that he “never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” and something of a personal motto, found among the author’s papers, that “…when the facts have particularly infuriated me, Fuck the Facts!”
Attending a different author’s reading some years ago, I was dismayed to hear her make a similar admission regarding a magazine piece about travel adventures (the genre in which she had made her name). Her excuse was that people go to travel magazines seeking a certain sort of release from mundanity, it was her job to provide that, and since the reader would never know which parts were truth and which fabrication, there was no harm done.
To me, labelling any work as non-fiction (which includes presenting it in a publication not identified as fiction) is to make a claim of authority and factuality; it creates a certain covenant between writer and reader. Encountering in fiction an event or insight which is not familiar to them, the reader evaluates it speculatively, and forms an opinion of whether or not it represents actuality, doing so largely in light of whether it conforms or not to the reader’s own experience. Encountering the very same piece of information in a work presented as non-fiction, we are explicitly being directed to take that information as superseding any counter experience or belief we may have – ‘this is the truth, accept it.’ Such a claim of authority must properly be earned by a certain amount of rigor, and self-discipline which includes, as its lowest bar, not simply ‘making shit up’.
I’m just sayin’…
In the end then, And No Birds Sang gives a reader cause to ponder not just one but two weighty, and yet very different, themes: the experience of fighting in a war, and the experience of reading about any other person’s experiences. Pretty good payoff for fewer than 200 pages.