A nameless soldier traverses the destroyed “unlandscape” of an unidentified war, and the mine-strewn territories of his own memory, in the industrious screenwriter-director’s third novel (Famine, 1997, etc.).
As we learn from terse fragments of juxtaposed narrative and recollection, the sardonic narrator accepted enlistment in lieu of imprisonment for numerous petty crimes and violent acts. He was subsequently placed in de facto solitary confinement, programmed to accept discipline and sent into combat in a place that may be a perpetually embattled Middle East. Surviving the firebombing of the abandoned hotel where his unit is quartered, he discovers among other survivors both his embittered superior officer (“R.”) and a fellow soldier (“Mc.”), who may have betrayed his companions. But neither man is who he seems; places in which the narrator finds himself fade and dissolve into other places; and figures from his past (his abusive father and passive mother, affectionate and dependent younger brother, the ex-wife he disappointed and lost) all assume rapidly altering accusatory forms. Komarnicki’s taut prose is generally vivid and seductive, enlivened by arresting figurative language (e.g., “memories lazy-Susaned by”). But the novel’s tone tends toward sonorousness and sententiousness, and there are arguably too many half-buried literary allusions (echoes of Dante’s Inferno and Ambrose Bierce’s classic story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” are both unmistakable and oppressive; but the nicely detailed implicit picturing of the narrator as a battle-weary Robinson Crusoe rings both true and fresh). Many readers will also be reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak allegorical novel The Road. But Komarnicki’s novel remains elusive, as its subtly handled climax keeps us wondering whether the narrator has hallucinated his last moments on a terminally scorched earth, or whether he can manage to survive the worst with which life can threaten him, by the simple expedient of having learned to value it.
Komarnicki doesn’t spell things out, and his novel’s ambiguities thus become its greatest strengths.