“Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet be merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him.” -Wolfram von Eschenbach, “Parzival.”
Karl Marlantes’ 2010 novel, Matterhorn, stands apart nearly every other piece of historical fiction. Still not given the widespread recognition it deserves (likely due to the fact it is less than a decade old), Matterhorn is the best novel to come out of the Vietnam War. I would be so bold as to call it the greatest piece of war fiction ever written. No other book has so perfectly articulated the universal aspects of war that transcend era, clime, and place. There are certain truths in war that have been shared among troops since Hannibal traversed the Alps, through the mud of the Somme, and into the present on the streets of Iraq. These experiences of combat will continue so long as wars are waged, and Marlantes is able to put these to paper as only someone who has lived them could.
Written over the course of thirty years, Matterhorn is officially a work of fiction, however the fictitious names and places in the book are a thin veneer over what is really an autobiographical account of Marlantes’ time in Vietnam. Second Lieutenant Mellas is clearly standing in place of Marlantes as he attempts to survive the war and successfully lead his troops. Marlantes commanded a Marine Rifle Company in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, Bronze star, two Navy Commendation Medals for Valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten Air Medals. Marlantes is the real deal and it shows in his writing. Most historical fiction books, especially those set on the battlefield, struggle to remain authentic. There is a long list of great military novels, which succeed through talented storytelling alone but fall short due to the author’s inexperience with the realities of combat. Matterhorn has no such struggles.
For any avid reader with no personal ties to Vietnam or any conflict, Marlantes is able to describe some of the most emotionally taxing aspects of war in ways anyone can empathize with. For example, Marlantes details that pre-mission tension every combat veteran remembers, and makes it accessible to even the most separated reader.
“The fog hung thick and heavy as the kids formed into a single line on the south side of Helicopter Hill. Mellas felt as if the clouds above him were slabs of slate. The kids were fatigued and filled with despair at the insanity of it all. Yet they were all checking ammunition, sliding bolts back and forth, preparing to participate in the insanity. It was as if the veterans of the company, succumbing to the insanity, had decided to commit suicide. Mellas, sick with exhaustion, now knew why men through themselves on hand grenades.”
Matterhorn is over six hundred densely packed pages. It is no easy read; this is not a fault but rather it enables deep character development. Characters like Vancouver, Hawke, China, and Cassidy will effortlessly take the place of former squad mates or close friends. The emotional investment made by the reader into each of them makes the high stakes of combat feel as real as possible. You truly share their tension as Marlantes takes you on patrol through the wet jungle or leaves you shivering on an isolated Observation Post awaiting an inevitable confrontation with the enemy. No book has ever described the chaos and violence of combat as well as the boredom and exhaustion that has accompanied war since the beginning of time. Matterhorn also succeeds in describing the most powerful emotion felt during combat; love shared between comrades. Marlantes describes the rush of emotion amidst the chaos,
“Running to join them he felt overwhelming joy. It was if he were coming home from a lashing winter storm to the warmth of his living room. The sky seemed brilliantly blue and overcast. If he didn’t move his legs faster, his heart would outpace his feet and burst. His heart, his whole body, was overflowing with an emotion that he could only describe as love.”
Matterhorn is much more than another book describing a soldier’s experiences in Vietnam. It is also much more than a beautifully written novel set with the dramatic backdrop war often provides. It is the most thorough and moving description of what extended combat is like for those who wage it. This is a must read for anyone interested in making sense of their own wartime experience, or for anyone who simply wishes to better understand what fighting men and women endure during wartime.
Pipes & Pages