Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
Art College doesn’t usually precede a career in the army but that was the path that Harry Parker, author of the literary sensation, Anatomy of a Soldier, took. He was stationed in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it was in the latter, in 2009, during a patrol when he was injured by stepping on a bomb. He lost both his legs and his army career came to an end. Anatomy of a Soldier is very much Parker’s story. At the heart of the book we follow troop leader BA5799 as he fights in an unnamed place, but which is obviously an amalgam devised from Parker’s own tours, and he too loses both his legs to a bomb. It’s no spoiler to say that is the story; it’s not so much the story that fascinates but rather the way that Parker has chosen to tell it.
How do you approach a subject – war – that has been reheated in so many ways already, from Homer and Virgil to today? And in recent years we have seen a surplus of accounts of a soldier’s life from Kevin Powers’ Guardian First Book Award winning The Yellow Birds to Anthony Swofford’s disturbingly dark Jarhead. The answer that came to Parker was to tell the story from the points of view of inanimate objects; a bone saw, a military radio, a tourniquet, a bag of fertiliser, a pair of trainers bought at a market, a zygote fungus; each object gets a few pages to add their own details to the novel and within those pages each item seems to go through its own birth and death.
As well as having inanimate objects tell the story, Parker forgoes the usual linear chronology; the soldiering, the explosion and the rehabilitation are shuffled and added in with the lives of the insurgents and their families. Harry Parker has said that he wanted to affect the image of a detonated bomb, a confusion of pieces, and he has succeeded. The fractured vignettes are like a bomb breaking up the area around it. The moving back and forth through time also feels like a bomb radiating outwards. It is the reader’s job to line the pieces up and put them together to form a whole story.
It doesn’t lose anything for this structure but rather gains depth, each object adding a layer, filling in, switching viewpoints, returning, to build something stronger than its parts. The layers make scenes that at first seemed mawkish or cliché more nuanced. To add to the disorientation that Parker is going for, the objects shift between addressing the reader or BA5799 directly. Giving voice to inanimate objects and reducing your main character to a couple of letters and a few numbers could easily have failed by distancing the reader too much but Parker somehow manages to make it affectingly personal.
As the title suggests, Parker points to the idea that soldiers are more than just themselves - their kit is not only indispensable in keeping them alive it is a part of them, an extension of themselves, an extension of their limits. This idea is timely when we think about the data storage of our own “indispensable” phones being extensions of our own memory, and in a time when athletes enhance themselves through different means just to stay in the game.
The hack question to ask about any war novel is, is it an anti-war novel? The way I read Anatomy of a Soldier was not as him saying that war is unnecessary but that it is horrible and ruining for everyone involved. He is sympathetic to most people entangled in war. It would have been easier to tell his own story and stop there but Parker thoughtfully looks from the other side, the viewpoint of the insurgents who make and lay the bomb that will destroy his proxy’s legs. I say thoughtful because he doesn’t draw these terrorists in caricature nor does he dramatically vilify them. He shows boys ensnared in the insurgent life through economic and geographical disadvantage. In Anatomy of a Soldier, Parker is able to work through what would bring one person to inflict pain on another.