:: Article

House of the Dead

By Max Dunbar.


The War Tour, Zoe Lambert, Comma Press 2011

Halfway through the title story of Zoe Lambert’s The War Tour, a mismatched hipster travelling couple quarrel about the origin of a Trotsky quote:

I tried to tell James more about my project. I wasn’t sure about its shape yet, or whether it would be journalism or creative non-fiction, but its inspiration was Trotsky’s words: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

Yvonne and James have been on a sightseeing tour of Sarajevo and arguing the whole way about authenticity and voyeurism. The narrator tells her boyfriend about a trip to see the remains of a Krakow concentration camp. ‘The one in Schindler’s List….We used our mobiles, one to light the way and the other to film the dark, empty rooms until we scared ourselves silly. It was weird, like the Blair Witch Project.’ This almost reaches the level of Dorothy Parker’s ‘Arrangement in Black and White’ in its satire of bourgeois naivety and indulgence and unintentional offence. But despite the narrator’s superficial approach to such grim ruins (not many writers have noticed that a significant percentage of modern conversation is reference) it’s James who comes off as the less sympathetic personality. He tells Yvonne that ‘Trotsky didn’t even say that. He was talking about dialectical reasoning.’

James is right – but the misattribution is the better line. If Trotsky didn’t say it he should have. Lambert has a lengthy afterword about the private papers of Mrs Charlotte Manning, a nineteenth-century botanist and colony wife, who accompanied her husband to Hobart Town in 1858. Lambert includes passages from Mrs Manning’s diary and letters (‘Despite these distractions, I find seafaring – and I do feel like a seafarer – to be the most exciting of distractions’, ‘My favourite is the Waratah bush, a lovely shrub or bushy tree, which has dark-green foliage and bright red flowers’ etc) and adds historical detail of the less pleasant aspects of resettlement; heat, conflict, corpses thrown off the side of the convict ship she travelled on.
Mrs Manning died in the colony of an unspecified fever. Lambert quotes a final diary excerpt:

I dreamt again of the outhouse. I am at the door but I do not have a key. I drop my notebook and pull and scratch at the lock. I hit my hands against the wood till splinters cut my palms, because inside there is a terrible screaming, and the door will not open.

The stories are full of that eerie aftermath feeling. This is Lambert describing a site in Afghanistan shortly after a NATO drone attack: ‘What were once buildings made of breeze blocks were blackened. A compound of houses was blasted open. Rubble, holes and teetering walls, their stones curving at impossible angles.’ This is from ‘Her Blue Shadow’, narrated by a Taliban fighter who has ‘completed five successful missions, after watching training videos from Iraq. They had had to guess the translation of the Arabic voiceover, but even so, he had become skilled at planting explosives, with his carpenter’s sure but gentle touch.’ Lambert gets inside the mind of a fundamentalist without antiwar melodrama or weak equivocation. It is the precision of the writing – that sure but gentle touch – that brings the war home for us here. And this: ‘Bashir enjoyed the bustle and action before missions: it was like the excitement of women preparing for a wedding or feast.’ There will be better fictional evocations of death-cult conditioning out there, but I can’t think of any. Lambert gazes into the abyss and does not flinch.

Reading The War Tour is like wandering through a network of underground catacombs, a labyrinth of the unexpected, full of marvellous and terrible things but always the crunch of mortars and the clatter of small arms fire from some ceaseless battle that rages itself out on a distant surface. Tutsi child soldiers and British army wives mingle with the real-life Roxa Luxemberg and Niels Bohr. Lambert draws them all with the same imaginative sympathy and exactitude. A Carolina recruit is subject to routine punishment: ‘They’d spray him in the face with a hosepipe while all the others ran up to him and thumped him in the stomach.’ A child under siege in Sarajevo looks forward to a meal without nettles.

The stories jump around through time and space with almost no continuity. Yet they seem linked, there is a coherence here, without any effort of contrivance in character or theme. There’s a recurrent image of ruined houses. Sarajevo at the time of Yvonne and James’s visit is full of bars and tourist shops but many of the houses are still pocked and stripped from the siege. An Iranian academic returns from prison to find that his wife has been stabbed to death in the property: ‘He could still see the dried blood on the wall; the wide mark by the table, the upturned chairs, and the books scattered on the floor.’ Tutsi warrior Japhet has a nightmarish interlude where ‘all he could think of was the rooms and endless passageways… He was trying to find his way out, but he couldn’t because he was tripping over the bodies; the corridors were piled with the rotting bodies of men and boys, shredded by machine guns.’ This gives the collection a sense of gothic horror that I don’t think was intentional. We are in the house of the dead.

Over the past decades the landscape of warfare has shifted from standard battle-charges of military art and legend to what contemporary strategists call ‘three-block war’ or ‘asymmetric warfare’ or ‘postmodern war’. These days the enemy isn’t necessarily in uniform and soldiers spend as much time on peacekeeping or reconstruction work as they do in actual conflict. Attitudes to war, now that it’s not a universal experience, have become postmodern. Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officers’ Reading Club provides essential insight into the new generation of soldiers. Today’s combatants watch Oliver Stone, read Hunter Thompson, quote Blackadder on operations and make up video-montages of the tours accompanied by the same kind of club music everyone in their twenties was listening to at the time of the Iraq war. Lambert’s title reflects this new reality – war as tourism, but not quite. Yvonne and James are caught in a gunfight while exploring a Bosnian fort. (‘Yeah. If we keep our backs to the fort and don’t think about history.’) Britain is full of refugees from countries where war is still very much a universal reality, and Lambert – a campaigner on asylum seekers’ rights – has a beautiful story set in a UKBA detention centre, another hallway in the catacombs of ruin. The idea that we can remain untouched by the struggle simply by deporting more and more immigrants is the great parochial delusion of the age.

Stumbling upon a body in the cantonment outhouse, Charlotte Manning is pulled away from the stink and the sight by her husband, who tells her in a kind of exasperated tenderness that ‘You have much to learn, darling. There are many things happening that you do not understand.’ Lambert’s collection shows us how great our lack of understanding really is, and tries to fill in some of the gaps, and above all demonstrates that even when we are not gazing into the abyss the abyss still gazes into us.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 2nd, 2012.