A fictionalized account of the life of Norman Bethune, the Canadian war physician.
The narrative, composed of a series of letters, begins at the end of Bethune’s life. Addressed to a daughter he has never seen, Bethune’s letters at first seem merely informative. They include rambling accounts of growing up as the son of a strict minister, his eventual break with his father’s religion, his first unhappy marriage and, finally, his decision to fight in World War I and then join the republican cause as a doctor in the Spanish Civil War. The letters are framed by his current life at a makeshift hospital in China where he aids Chairman Mao’s campaign to drive the nationalists out of the mainland. Action-packed to be sure, and yet, the letters become more searching, weaving together world events with a history of Bethune’s love affair with Kajsa, a Swedish woman he meets in Spain during the war who becomes the mother of his daughter. Bock’s masterful narration gives a sense of the urgency of this world-changing moment, and of the exhilaration of being a player on a world stage, and from this emerges an unexpected portrait of Bethune as a manipulative narcissist who specializes in hiding his pettiness under a cloak of disinterested nobility. Bedazzled by war, Bethune trembles with awe when he meets Mao, but he cannot manage to maintain even the semblance of good relations with colleagues who are at least as committed as he to serving a common cause. Blind to everything but his high motives, he does not seem to register that Kajsa is under suspicion of being a spy. The novel’s strength lies in its masterful revelation of Bethune’s paradoxical combination of dishonesty and highmindedness. Bock (The Ash Garden, 2001) paints a picture of a fundamentally amoral, if politically pious, man who does not see that he loves war more than he loves peace.
A slow, sure novel that burns away the glamor of war.