Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Thu, 27/01/2011 – 17:23

I recently came back from a few days tour of the Somme region with my father and brother, who both served in the armed forces as younger men. My father wanted to see where his grandfather had served as a stretcher bearer, before being gassed and sent home, where he spent the next years bedridden – too weak to do anything except struggle to breathe, before he mercifully died. The horrific numbers and the tragic stories from the Somme battlefields are well known. In one place, where one of my father’s uncles won a medal, we only had to walk a few feet outside the cemetary to find solid lead shrapnel balls, strewn across the loamy soil. Live shells are still regularly dug up by local farmers, and line the roadsides waiting for collection. Bodies are dug up too, some of the many tens of thousands of blokes who went over the top but never came back, and whose bodies were left to decompose in no-mans-land, churned into the soil by the shelling.

It’s a sad place that speaks of the naivete of young men and the ruthlessness of their leaders. My father was moved, but also moved by anger. Why did millions of healthy young men follow their superiors and participate in their own destruction? Why didn’t they wring their officer’s necks – shoot the generals? You can sense the same outrage at the stupidity of the whole enterprise in the works of literature from the period – in particular Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and Celine’s ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ (in my first novel, The Summons, I deliberately  chose a central character who was a shell-shocked WWI war veteran – a scholar of the medieval ‘witch crazes’ who’d spent the entire Weimar Period in an asylum, only to emerge in 1933 to find that once again his country had gone mad.)

Perhaps the best answer to the question I’ve found was in the story of Percy Topliss, whose eventful life was documented in the excellent The Monocled Mutineer. Topliss was a guy who worked the instinctive genuflecting of the class system to his advantage. A working class bloke who went around impersonating an officer for his own benefit – someone who saw right through the artificiality  of the whole thing. The descriptions in the book of life in a deserter’s no-man’s land are hilarious and  tragic – clearly there were enlisted men who didn’t want a bar of the mindless carnage. The descriptions of the actions of the ‘yellow canaries’ back at the Bull ring behind the lines, those trainers charged with encouraging men back to the front, whose tactics were often stupid and cruel, eventually precipitating an Australian led rebellion in Etaples, are equally well drawn – and point to the obvious answer to my father and brother’s question – anybody who disobeyed orders was summarily shot.

The main character in Stephen Daisley’s new novel, Traitor, is one such ‘criminal’. He is a naive young man from rural New Zealand. His first experience of life outside of the garrison, and the theatre of war, where he achieves some distinction, is when he meets a Turkish doctor, who is treating an Australian soldier on a Gallipoli ridge, during a battle. David isn’t sure what to do. Shoot the Turk? Help him? A naval shell makes the decision for him, and the explosion sends them both to the same military hospital.

Mahmoud is a wordly man, a doctor who has trained in London. He is also a Sufi. He befriends David, and there begins a relationship characterised by gentle teasing, and encouragement. It is fair to say that David has never met anyone like Mahmoud, and in his war-brutalised condition he is vulnerable to the kind of sensitivity that makes of Mahmoud’s epigrams and gentle coaxings and inextinguishable humour a kind of sensible alternative to the crude obviousness, and blatant propaganda that otherwise defines his military life. With Mahmoud, nothing is as it seems, things are never black and white, and so begins a fragile balancing act – a friendship characterised by David’s love, essentially a desire for the kind of grace that Mahmoud embodies.

David’s crime is that he helps Mahmoud to escape, although the two don’t get very far. They are shortly after separated, never to meet again. David is sent to the Western Front to act as a stretcher-bearer, as punishment, where again his bravery and compassion amidst the stupid carnage distinguishes him from his peers. Back in New Zealand, David receives a final letter from Mahmoud’s wife, telling him that Mahmoud has been sacrificed at the altar of Kemal Ataturk’s desire to secularise and democratise his new republic. The novel jumps forward to where David, now the ‘old man’, forty odd years having passed, still carries the haunting beauty of Mahmoud’s ambiguous teachings inside him, and in his rural isolation, discovers that his words begin to make perfect sense (although he must work to make them understandable – he looks for clues, answers in the natural world around him.) There is a numinous quality to much of the prose that describes his life here as a shepherd, the visceral realities of life on the land aside, he is marked as an outcast, a recluse, and yet is strangely at peace with the physical and emotional landscape that he traverses, the reverential words of Mahmoud colouring his perceptions of the life that remains to him, the barest sense that it is an illusion, a trial, and a blessing.

Some of the writing that describes David’s life, both on the land and at the Somme, where David’s inarticulateness is contrasted with the expressive quality of his actions, is hauntingly beautiful. Similarly, Daisley’s descriptions of the men caught in the midst of the bloody madness, the small deft touches that characterise and illuminate, are matched only by his skilful use of dialog, where language is used to soothe the dying, express humour and disgust, but always to carry the weight of what can’t be said – the sadness and the tragedy that is too immense to take in (indeed, David’s retreat to his hut, and his scant moments of human intimacy thereafter, all point to a man slowly digesting both the trauma of his wartime experience, and the enduring psychological resonances of the conversations with his friend, Mahmoud.)

From what I can make out, Daisley’s novel has its critics, particularly in the reviews I’ve read from his home country, New Zealand. Many of his critics point to the overtly poetic quality of his language, suggesting that it doesn’t marry well with the subject matter of Traitor, or point to the unlikely nature of David’s friendship with Mahmoud. On both of these counts I’d have to disagree. I happen, in this case, to agree more with Gail Jones, whose endorsement on the front cover reads – ‘a novel of wisdom and beauty.’ Traitor is indeed an original vision, just like it’s main character, unsentimental and yet alive to the possibilities of discovering redemption in solitude, and quiet reflection, and many of its visions stayed with me for days after I put the book down (like David, digesting the meanings behind the images and memories of a naive young man, now old before his time.)

Traitor, Stephen Daisley, Text, 2010. ‘Gallipoli 1915. A young New Zealand soldier and a Turkish doctor meet in the chaoes of battle. When a shell bursts overhead, David and Mahmoud are taken to the same military hospital. There, an unshakeable bond grows between them; naive shepherd and Sufi mystic. A bond such that, when the time comes, David will choose to betray his country for his friend. The savage punishment that follows will break David and make him anew…’ from the dustjacket.