Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously clung to phrases that inspired him, mulling them in his head before inserting them into his poems. Most people know that a phrase on a newspaper article from 1854 about the disastrous Battle of Balaclava led to “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” That phrase was “some hideous blunder,” which Tennyson turned into “someone had blundered.”
Tennyson’s “Someone had blundered” is immediately followed by the famous triplet:
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”
Through the years hawks and doves have appropriated those lines, which are either stirring or ominous or both, depending on how you feel about soldiers needlessly plunging to their deaths. Tennyson, in his 50s at the time and a British Poet Laureate, was certainly no sandal-wearing pacifist; there’s a celebration of national bravery in his poem, and a total “support of the troops.” But there’s also a pointed accusation: those courageous chargers were only forced to display their courage because some commanding officer fucked up.
“Someone had blundered” is as much of an evasion as “friendly fire” or “collateral damage” or “mistakes were made.” It’s a sheepish admission and a lie, because it falsely implies that if everyone simply had done their job correctly, war would be a death-free affair, no more dangerous than an intense gym workout. It’s a necessary lie, of course: there simply aren’t enough energetic suicides to populate the world’s armies. The beginning of a war IS the blunder. Everything else is the consequence.
The hideous blunder of war begins in military academies, like the Peruvian one in “The City and the Dogs,” (Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1962 debut). Midway through the novel, a military exercise goes tragically awry, and the event, its causes and its aftermath are a miniature parody of wartime absurdities.
The (very real, very respectable) Military Academy Leoncio Prado in Lima is an army in embrio. It is also a haven for hazing and bullying, guarded by the statue of the mythical Prado, a national hero who died after leading what’s basically Peru’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Young cadets run amok under the bemused supervision of a military staff that shifts between helpless and complicit. The Academy grounds are also walked by a vicuna and a mangy, abused female dog named Skimpy.
Skimpy just reminded me of another euphemism popular with the military: “screwed the pooch.” Indeed, the things that happen to poor Skimpy at the hands of the boiling-with-hormones boys are not fit to be printed in decent publications, but this isn’t one of those, so let’s just say that the Academy is a lot like the one in “Ender’s Game” except with more dog-fucking.
Skimpy even prompts an ode from the Academy’s resident Poet. It’s not quite Tennyson, but here it goes:
“Skimpy, you prick-licking bitch,
I’ve never seen a dog so thin.
How come you don’t curl up and die
When The Boa rams it in?”
The dog-fucking is probably what drew cries of degeneracy after the novel’s scandalous debut. In Spain, Franco’s main censor described “The City and the Dogs” as “generally repellent.” In Peru, the military establishment accused Vargas Llosa (who based the book on his own experiences as a young cadet) of being paid by the rival Ecuadorian government to “tell tales after school” in an unpatriotic effort to lower Peruvian morale. Book burnings ensued. Here’s a life hint: if you ever find yourself burning books in symbolic hysteria, you’re the bad guy.
(Of course, now the school’s website proudly name-drops the Nobel laureate as a beloved, renowned alumni. Yesterday’s monsters are today’s pets.)
Anyway, The Poet, who writes naive pornographic poems and stories as a way to keep from being beat up, is clearly the author’s stand-in. But Vargas Llosa switches perspectives as we get to know the other students, kids with nicknames like the Slave, The Boa, Curly, The Jaguar. The nicknames are half playful, half dehumanizing, which is fitting: the cadets call themselves “Dogs.”
It’s implied that what The Boa does to Skimpy, the school does to the kids. But being screwed over does not keep them from raising hell, and their little criminalities reminded me of Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” which had been released a couple of years earlier.
Then comes the ambiguous accident/incident which turns harmless carousing into a very serious matter indeed. It affects multiple lives, and leads the Poet to make a heroic stand and denounce the culprit/s. The problem is that to be heroic as an individual, the Poet must break the code of the collective by “squealing,” which is a no-no, and for “poofs.” What is to be done when the act of heroism is not distinguishable from the act of cowardice? After all, it’s not enough for the Poet to say that “someone has blundered.” He has to provide names and evidence. It leads to this:
“He began to speak in a faint, unsteady voice, but as he described what the Circle did, and told the story of the Slave, and went on to the liquor and cigarettes, the stealing and selling of exams, the affairs at Paulino’s, the jumping over the wall, the poker games in the latrine, the contests, the vengeances, the bets, it was as if the secret life of the section took on the reality of a nightmare, and his voice grew stronger, steadier, even aggressive at times.”
I’m not too fond of the phrase “the reality of a nightmare” – because nightmares are not known for their “reality” – but still, this passage is Vargas Llosa explaining himself as a writer: strong, steady, sometimes aggressive.
If you think it’s a little too much to have one’s alter-ego demonstrate the meaning of heroism, you’re under-estimating Vargas Llosa’s cynicism. (Realism? I get my cynicism and my realism confused all the time.)
RATING: Halfway between GOOD ENOUGH and COOL! Vargas Llosa would get much better, and I feel I should have cared more for the individual students than I did.
POST-SCRIPT: Just like Mario Vargas Llosa uses nicknames to protect the not-so-innocent, Tennyson wisely avoids naming names in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” but history blames the Battle of Balaclava on a sad game of “Telephone” between the feuding Earls of Lucan and Cardigan, and the General, Lord Raglan, (a man who was getting on years and kept referring to the Russians as “the French” because he half-believed himself to be at the battle of Waterloo, which he had attended a full 40 years earlier.)