A platoon of soldiers assigned to maintain order winds up doing anything but in this pointed military satire.
The collective “we” narrating this novel by Serbian-born novelist Albahari (Learning Cyrillic, 2014, etc.) insists that the checkpoint they’re guarding was opened with the best of intentions, albeit the vaguest of purposes. “We hadn’t been told whether the checkpoint was on a border lying between two countries or along a line dividing two villages,” Albahari writes. At first the checkpoint is so quiet as to seem unnecessary, but a parade of disruptions, most of them violent, soon arrives: a dead sentry with a slashed throat, two disemboweled locals, a corporal hanged from a tree, a mass of asylum-seeking refugees. The novel is delivered in one long paragraph, as if to suggest that all the violent and absurd chaos of military life is rightfully stuffed into one massive ball of mortality and dysfunction. Albahari occasionally plays that idea for comic effect, skewering the disorder of the chain of command and the ineptitude of the checkpoint’s commander. Though the checkpoint is all but neglected, somehow a mail delivery arrives; when photographers arrive to document the turmoil, the commander’s first thought is charging them a fee. (“You’ll see that Visa and MasterCard are our sponsors,” he says.) In that regard the book is a worthy descendant of The Good Soldier Svejk and Catch-22, though when Albahari gets dark (as every military satire must), he gets very dark; rapes, beheadings, and vicious stabbings are all part of the territory. Albahari’s rambling narration oversells the theme of the madness of war, but there’s no questioning his passion on the subject. An honest war story only emerges “once it conforms to the government’s truth,” he asserts. This novel celebrates fiction’s capacity to critique the party line.
A digressive but attention-grabbing critique of war’s horrors.