The Other Descendants
By John Boyne
The Absolutist is a novel about war, about masculinity, about relationships between young men in the trenches, and about cowardice.
It began a few years ago when I was watching a news report on the BBC concerning a town in England where a monument was being erected to soldiers who had lost their lives in the First World War. The names of these men, boys for the most part, teenagers, were etched into the stone and their descendants, in some cases grandchildren or great-grandchildren, in more cases grand-nephews or nieces, since most of these boys did not live to start families of their own, were there to witness the unveiling, to commemorate the lives of their fallen ancestors, to remember their sacrifice, their heroism and their untimely deaths.
But there was another group there. A smaller group. Also descendants. Also people who had lost family members in the Great War of 1914-1918. But the memories of their ancestors were not being immortalized in stone, their sacrifice was not being recalled, their heroism was not being honored. And because of that, this particular group was understandably upset and wanted their voices to be legitimately heard by the media, by the BBC, by the British government.
We read a lot about the soldiers who fight and come back to their families covered in glory. We read very little about the young man in the trenches who goes mad, becomes shell-shocked, puts his guns down, cannot fight anymore and is condemned as a traitor, sentenced and shot. We read even less about the young man who is not a coward, not shell-shocked, not ideologically opposed to the war but who, while taking part in it, realizes that the methods by which the army pursues its objectives are contrary to the moral absolutes for which it is fighting. The man who brings these discrepancies to the attention of his superiors and who is ignored. The man who refuses to fight any further and is shot for his troubles.
My novel, The Absolutist, follows one such young man, Will Bancroft, and his relationship with a young soldier, the narrator of the book, Tristan Sadler. They are just teenagers, away from home for the first time, frightened, witnessing death on a daily basis, afraid to stand up in the trenches in case they peep over the side and are picked off by a sniper. Tristan and Will begin a sexual relationship; on Tristan’s part this becomes romantic. Despite the fact that this is a time when homosexuality is illegal in England and punishable by imprisonment, he is willing to take any risk necessary to further this relationship with a young man who means everything to him. Will, on the other hand, is more ambiguous in his feelings toward Tristan. At his lowest moments, when he is in need of solace, he turns to his friend. Afterward he turns against him. A cycle of love and violence begins.
Tristan recounts the story from old age. It’s 1979, he’s in his eighties, a well-respected and successful novelist, but a young man who has committed one act which has overshadowed his life, and for which he seeks redemption. As he recounts his story he tells of the day in 1919, the year after the end of the war, when he travels from London to Norwich for the day to meet with Marian Bancroft, Will’s sister, who is still grieving and angry at the fact that her brother, a brave and faithful soldier, has been shot by his own side. Over the course of the day, many secrets will emerge as Tristan tries to unburden himself of his guilt.
John Boyne was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1971. He is the author of nine novels (seven for adults and two for children), including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was made into an award-winning film. The novel also won two Irish Book Awards, was short-listed for the British Book Award, reached the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list, and has sold more than five million copies. His novels are published in forty-five languages. He lives in Dublin. Please visit him at www.johnboyne.com
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of the Other Press e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe.