November 11th 1918; a date known worldwide. The immense importance of the Great War as well as the Second World War, both of which we think upon during Remembrance services on this date each year, has been endlessly portrayed in fiction throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.
As these wars are a huge part of our cultural consciousness as both a nation and a world, many have become desensitised to it. There are masses of both literary works and films depicting the horrifying reality of war. Thus, the question arises: how does one go about creating a sense of empathy for those who lived and served during the two World Wars in a largely desensitised young generation of people?
The answer appears to lie in subverting the idea of a traditional narrator. When one picks up a book concerning these two wars the story is generally told by an omniscient narrator, a man on the front line, or a woman (nearly always a wife or mother) left behind.
In my opinion, there have been three key modern books which have done this in a way which allows for an empathetic understanding of these two wars for both children and adults.
The first of these is War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo. His novel is written from the perspective of a horse (although not an entirely original idea if we remember Anna Sewell) during this horrendous time. Morpurgo removes the reader from the domestic front in that the tale is not told from the perspective of a family member, but retains the intensity of emotion within the family unit during the time of fear that was the First World War.
Indeed, the narrative perspective here allows the author to use a single narrator throughout the novel to travel various places and permit the reader to understand the war from different perspectives. It would have been impossible, without writing a clichéd spy novel, to have the reader see the war from both a German and English perspective had a person rather than a horse been used as narrator. It allows the reader to distance itself from mankind in a way that makes one realise that different nations are not different at heart. The horse has no natural racial bias, and neither should we.
Secondly, we have The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak. This book has an arguably even more inventive style than War Horse as it is narrated by death; a circumstance rarely seen in literature, if ever. The portrayal of death as an anthropomorphic figure again allows us as readers to take a step back from being part of humanity and examine the horrors which humanity has released into the world. The haunting book cover, which depicts death in the visage of the Grim Reaper holding the hand of a small girl and dancing, exposes the way in which Death interacts with both the narrative and the characters. He is not a menacing figure, but displays a playful, often humourous persona, as well as being a rather pathetic figure in that he is burdened by the sadness of the loss of everybody in the world. He has not had to bury a brother, mother, sister, or any kind of relative, but has had to carry each one out of life. Thus the reader’s empathy is heightened as not only are we saddened by the loss of each character in the novel because of the effect of the death on the living, but also because of the effect of the death on Death itself.
Finally, we have The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by John Boyne which is narrated from the point of view of a young boy. The extreme naivety of this German child contrasts the disgusting actions of his father and the commanders associated with him, allowing us readers to feel arguably more horrified at the actions of those men, purely because they are not innocent. The use of childlike words, for-example “Out-with” as a misunderstanding of Auschwitz, heightens the empathy we feel for this boy who is utterly clueless as he enters a gas chamber at the end of the novel. However, this novel is particularly interesting as one feels a sick sense of justice when this boy is gassed as his father, who presides over the camp, is forced to realise the effect of these camps. It seems as though nothing else could have forced this upon him.
The immense success of these texts, all of which have won awards for their staggering exposition of the two World Wars serve an important function in modern society: keeping the horrors of the war in the forefront of our memory, ensuring it never again occurs.