At the Remembrance Day ceremony for Canada in Green Park, London, the High Commissioner, Gordon Campbell, asked everyone to imagine what it would have been like to be in the trenches, to see your friends die, the person with whom you breakfasted gone by lunchtime. To help us imagine, he pointed out that of every ten people there, one would be dead and two injured. I thought everyone imagined these things at Remembrance Day. Abstract giving of thanks is much harder to do than imagining mud up your nose and blood in your eyes, and while necessary, may not make us wish for peace with every second of that minute of silence as much as imagining can.
War has been imagined by several Canadian authors who have lived abroad, but today I want to quote from a novel that sucked me in from the first page: Alan Cumyn’s The Sojourn ( McClelland & Stewart Emblem Editions 2004, paperback). I used the word “sucked” me in because the book opens with mud, mud that can suck a man down to his death. The protagonist, Ramsay Crome, is a private with the 7th Canadian Pioneers carrying building material for the trenches to the front at Ypres in the First World War. When he swings round to address his friend Johnson, the bundle of iron pig’s tails or piquets he carries knocks Johnson off the boards on which the men walk over the mud. Crome knocks his friend into the mud. Seeing that Johnson is “mired to his chest,” the corporal orders Crome to “get him out” and the men march on. Another group come along while he is still trying to pull Johnson out with his gun, and this time a lieutenant says, “If a man has fallen in he’s to be left to his own devices.” Crome, quick on his feet despite the mud, pretends that Johnson is a major, and this changes the situation. The officer and his companions help.
For ten, fifteen minutes — a lifetime for me and Johnson — we become a struggling mass of mud-soaked humanity, grappling for “the major,” trying to get the earth to loose its vacuum hold. Eventually ropes are procured and he is hauled out like a horse caught in a drinking hole — though no horse is ever hauled out of one of these slime-pits — and for a few moments is allowed to writhe and wriggle on the duckboards while men crowd around. He’s unrecognizable, mud-slimed from head to foot.
-Alan Cumyn, The Sojourn, pages 6-7.
As if that weren’t enough, soon after they’ve picked up their burdens and resumed their journey, a shell knocks them off the boards.
There’s no duck-walk now. The ground is slime and shattered wood and strange, destroyed artifacts of war: wagon wheels, planks, odd bits of iron, unexploded shells, shrapnel, parts of corpses. A severed hand on a mess tin, and a soft blur in the muck underfoot that could be a dead rat or a bit of internal organ or even an abandoned pair of boots.
-Alan Cumyn, The Sojourn, p. 9
Crome and the reader are offered relief from Cumyn’s detailed description of the trenches at page 60, when Crome gets a blue slip informing him of his leave, which he takes in London. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Crome survives the war — there’s a sequel: The Famished Lover (Goose Lane Editions 2010).
And now the abroad bit. According to his own website, Cumyn lived in Xuzhou, China, teaching English, in 1987, which inspired his first novel, Waiting for Li Ming (Goose Lane 1993). Following jobs in international development and for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, he took his family to Salatiga in Central Java and taught for half a year at Satya Wacana Christian University. Finally, Cumyn has also written two books about a Canadian diplomat tortured on the Pacific island of Santa Irene: Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound, each of which won the Ottawa Book award and were shortlisted for others.
- Some of Alan Cumyn’s books can be bought online from the Canadian Literature books site All Lit Up (alllitup.ca).
- About The Art of War mural on display at the High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom.
- NFB film John McCrae’s War: In Flanders Fields.
- Jonathan Vance review of The Sojourn in Canadian Literature.