Pat Barker on her new novel about the First World War

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (11/11/12)


The destruction and terrible legacy of the Great War of 1914-18 informs much of Pat Barker's fiction. Barker, who is one of Britain's most eminent writers, became interested in the First World War because of her grandfather's experiences fighting in the trenches in France. In her celebrated Regeneration trilogy, she offers an unsparing portrait of that war's devastation. The final novel in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. Her latest book, Toby's Room, is about the Queen Mary's Hospital, established in 1917, where the doctor who became the father of plastic surgery worked to repair the disfiguring facial injuries sustained by soldiers.

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Barker finds the First World War to be captivating as a subject for her fiction. "It's that sense that the young men were so idealistic, so enthusiastic and so innocent," she said to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright in a recent interview. Instead of the "great adventure" many of them anticipated, "what they found was this kind of terrifying passivity, of crouching in a shell-hole in a hole in the ground, being shelled, so that whether you survived or not was almost entirely random. There was very little the individual man could do about it. And of course that is the ideal situation for producing immense stress, and even breakdown."

One of the main characters in Toby's Room is Elinor Brooke, a young artist. "Elinor believes, like Virginia Woolf, that women had no role to play in that war, because they had no vote, they had no political presence, they had had nothing to do with the starting of the war. And Virginia Woolf believed, and Elinor Brooke agreed with her, that because of that, women should have nothing to do with the war at all, and that means that they shouldn't even oppose it," Barker explained. "It's a very radical position. It's obviously not one I agree with, because I think the lives of men and women are so intertwined that it's unrealistic to expect a woman whose brother or son or boyfriend is at the front to say that the war is nothing to do with her. And that is what Elinor has to face up to in the end, that she is involved."

Barker said that we may think we are more enlightened than past eras, but in fact the image of war in the public eye is not much different today. "You see the glorious dead, with the national flag on the coffin, you see the lightly wounded man, smiling. You don't see the seriously disfigured, the multiple amputations that the men suffer. They are still very largely invisible."

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Kit Neville, a patient at the hospital, wears a mask in the likeness of poet Rupert Brooke to hide his disfigurement. That was a detail Barker didn't invent. "The masks were a last resort," she explained. "Some people were just too difficult, especially burns victims. "

The First World War is widely seen as a conflict that was "useless." Barker acknowledged some historians would dispute that, but her view is that "it was fought to defend four empires, three of whom had ceased to exist at the end of the war, and the fourth, the British Empire, was very seriously weakened, though not ended. So it achieved exactly the opposite of the aims for which it was being fought."

Asked how she felt about Remembrance Day and its memorializations, Barker stressed that it's not just about the First World War -- or even just about one's own troops. "On this day we commemorate all the dead of all the wars, and on both sides, I think," she said. "I've been round the battlefields in France. People were buried where they fell, or as close as possible to where they fell. And because of that there are German soldiers buried in English graveyards. And I have never seen a German grave that did not have poppies on it."






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