"... there was a rout, and this was its terminus.... a chaotic retreat could go no further.... He saw thousands of men, ten, twenty thousand, perhaps more, spread across the vastness of the beach. In the distance they were like grains of black sand. But there were no boats, apart from one upturned whaler rolling in the distant surf. It was low tide and almost a mile to the water's edge."
Halfway through Ian McEwan's novel Atonement the reader joins up with the British Expeditionary Force as it slogs through the battered northern France countryside, hoping to reach the English Channel at Dunkirk before being overtaken by the pursuing Germans.
The landscape of escape
We see and feel the retreat in the company of a young private.
The "flashes in the southern sky" warn him of "the approaching storm of German armor."
He registers "the black cloud, a burning refinery in Dunkirk, which was beginning to rule the northern sky."
With map and compass, he extemporizes routes to skirt the main road and its gauntlet of destroyed and disabled military vehicles - the detritus of military miscalculation and failure. But even a field of grazing cattle is marked by war - by bomb craters. Strewn away from some craters are fragments of flesh, bone, and brindled skin; in and around other craters, no trace ... "not a shred of clothing or shoe leather" - all vaporized.
Wearily fending off diesel fumes and other cruel stenches that have "insinuated themselves into the folds of their clothes," soldiers break tattered ranks to forage for food or drink from the carcasses of abandoned lorries.
There are rivers and canals to cross, so there will be a convergence of tired men and machinery onto the main roads. The reader is informed that "the defeated army was running up a corridor that was bound to narrow, and soon must be cut off. There would be no chance of escape for the stragglers."
The convergence of misery slows the pace to a crawl. "Slow-moving lorries, half-tracks, and ambulances stretched in a line to the north, grind at a walking pace."
From lorries, "the conscious wounded stare out blankly." Mixed in with the military transports, there are civilian cars, buses, farm trucks and carts pushed by men and women or pulled by horses. These conveyances are stuffed or piled high with household gear and suitcases.
Though blistered, bone-tired, and thirsty ("his tongue large in his mouth"), the young private resists the temptation to hitch a ride. From experience he has judged that the transports are an easy target from the air. On foot, he can see and hear what is coming. "If he was going to survive, he had to keep a watch on the sky."
As they cross rivers and canals, most of the men are "protectively folded into their thoughts." The young private is trying to bridge his misfortunes and resentments.
The howl of a dive-bomber unfolds his thoughts.
Circling 10,000 feet above the road are "dots." One peels away from the formation of specks and begins a near-vertical dive. "The silence builds like pressure in their ears." Then comes "the rising howl" - a sound that the prey "were obliged to take personally."
Next, there's the screech of the falling bomb. The ground is unearthed. His face is buried in the bomb-plowed ground. Yet he can hear "the banshee wail of the next attack."
"The blast lifted him forward several feet and drove him face-first into the soil. When he came to, his mouth and nose and ears were filled with dirt. He was trying to clear his mouth, but he had no saliva. He used a finger, but that was worse. He was gagging on the dirt, then he was gagging on his filthy finger.... He could not spit or swallow, he could not easily breathe, and he could not think."
A refuge en route
Another German plane is strafing the length of the column. "The broad spray of fire is advancing up the road at two hundred miles an hour. The rattling hailstorm din of cannon rounds hit metal and glass" - and defenseless soldiers and civilians.
The young private throws himself into the shadow of an upended three-ton lorry. The bulbous differential of its black greasy chassis will be his refuge - if his blistered feet and tired-heavy legs can cover the fifty yards between the line of fire and sanctuary. "Only in nightmares are feet so heavy."
The lorry's "steel frame trembled as rounds hit it with the wild rapidity of a drumroll."
He "pressed himself into the darkness of the chassis by the front wheel. Never had sump oil smelled sweeter. Waiting for another plane, he crouched fetally, his arms cradling his head and eyes tight shut, and thought only of survival."
For all his troubles, he's troubled anew
Many of the wounded can go no further; they call out for help or for a mouthful of water. Others just lay by a ditch, unconscious, or lost in hopelessness. He has stopped to bury a child. There was no pause for ceremony. He wishes he had retrieved another child's body - the one that had been blasted up into tree limbs. There were too many to bury - but maybe that one.
He has been educated in misfortune, for in peacetime as well as wartime, fate has not been kind to him. Perhaps because of the misfortunes he has suffered, he will attempt to shield and save a few civilians from being easy prey for the German dive-bombers and strafings.
He hadn't killed anybody. But had he done all that he might have to prevent some deaths? How many had he left behind to die?
A vast beach, an empty sea
The scent of the sea meant he was getting closer to his passage back to her. "They heard the sea and tasted a salty mouthful before they saw it. The taste of holidays." But there were still miles to go, and still menace from the air, and discord on the ground.
Many soldiers "were irritated at not finding the beach just beyond the canal. They seemed to think it was a failure of planning.... The wide featureless land denied all sense of progress."
In the distance he sees that "there were no boats by the long jetty." He blinks, and looks again. "That 'jetty' was made of men, a long file of them, six or eight deep, standing up to their knees, their waists, their shoulders." That jetty "stretches out for five hundred yards through the shallow waters."
No fleet is approaching. There is nothing in sight, except the smudges on the horizon - boats burning after an air attack.
To the east, "where the night was rising," the defense perimeter line was under heavy artillery fire. "The enemy was closing in and England was a long way off."
"There was nothing that could reach the beach in hours." And yet the troops stand there, "facing the horizon in their tin hats, rifles lifted above the waves. From a distance they look as placid as cattle. And these men are a small proportion of the total."
On the beach, some soldiers were scooping sand with their helmets to make foxholes.
A resting place at Dunkirk
After much searching, the young private finds "a bombed-out house whose cellar was half open to the sky and had the appearance of a gigantic cave." In the crowded blackness of the cellar floor, he lies down, halting his retreat.
"An ecstasy of relief spread upward through his knees and he knew he would not move again that night." The problem: How to eat without being set upon. "To survive was to be selfish."
"He began to eat the best meal of his life," even though "the bread tasted of army canvas." Lingering on his tongue is a sugared almond, a reward for coming to the aid of a distraught civilian. Its "sweetness belonged to another world."
That other sweetness - the ultimate one - is conveyed in the words that conclude every one of her letters: "I'll wait for you. Come back."
The bundle of her letters is buttoned into the inside pocket of his greatcoat. He had been drawing on that bank of memories for so long, the once-vivid recollections were now "bleached colorless through overuse." Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried comes into the reader's memory bank.
Still, the young private summons the memories, even as they "lay on the far side of a great divide in time, as significant as B.C. and A.D.... before the sight of a corpse became a banality.... He touched the coat pocket. It was a kind of genuflection."
May 1940, London
"A quiet and malign thickening" had set upon the city.
At St. Thomas's Hospital, empty beds spread across the ward, and through other wards, "like deaths in the night."
The British Expeditionary Force in northern France "was making strategic withdrawals to previously prepared positions." Even the probationers "who knew nothing of military strategy or journalistic convention, understood a euphemism for retreat."
It was hard to believe that barely a hundred miles away there were hundreds of casualties to be hastily evacuated. "A muted dread pervaded."
Vacated mattresses were fumigated; bed frames and springs, woodwork, and floors washed down with carbolic. Bedpans were scoured, wiped, and dried "until they shone like dinner plates."
Blanket-bathing techniques were rehearsed by probationers; their chilblains had to be treated with indifference.
Still more beds were squeezed into the already-tight rows. More dressings, hypodermics, autoclaves, and bedpans arrive along with an extra medicine cupboard - and its rows of bottles labeled morphine.
Operating theaters were moved to the basement. Ground-floor windows were sandbagged, and then the sandbagging was reinforced. Every skylight had been cemented over.
Workmen set about "installing new drums of fire hose on landings outside the lifts, and setting out new buckets of fire-fighting sand." There were fire drills too, and assembly-point procedures, and practice at fitting gas masks on imagined incapable and unconscious patients.
"The unease grew, but there was little opportunity for speculation, which in any case was officially forbidden."
What war-hospital nurses saw, heard, smelled, and dealt with
Stretchers - and more stretchers - bearing filthy bandages, soaked crimson and black, which held together the remains of men. The wounded were tagged with tied-on labels from the casualty-clearing stations; many bore markings from Dover quayside triages. In every ward, they had to distill and prioritize the groans, pleas, and shouts of pain.
Breathing the stench of engine oil, the lingering offense of cordite, the sticky sour odor of fresh blood, and the stink of gangrene, the nurses worked through blood, engine grease, beach sand, mud, seawater, bullets, and shrapnel to remove battle dress that had been mangled into wounds; battle dress whose pockets secreted crumbs of rancid food.
Bearing the baring of wounds
They worked around "bone risen though flesh" - worked past "glimpses of intestine or optic nerve."
Nurses kept their eyes open (and feelings closed) as they attended to patients "who shut tight their eyes, as they opened and closed their mouths in silent agony."
As the dressings were removed from where a face had been shot away, a probationer dobbed. "The patient's whole body shook, and his knuckles turned white round the iron bedhead, but he did not make a sound as she continued to pull the pieces clear.... He bucked on the bed, and hissed through his clenched teeth."
At another bed, she hydrated the dark oval hole of the head that was completely bandaged.
At other beds, she uses a pair of surgical tongs to gently pull away the sodden, congealed lengths of ribbon gauze from the cavities where once there were faces. All was ruin.
At one bed, the muscles around the eye sockets peered out. At another bed, "a spongy crimson mess of brain" emerged. Exposures "so intimate, they were never intended to be seen."
At still another bed, she applies tannic to a body overwhelmed by burning oil from a ferry sunk off Dunkirk. "The viscous oil clung to the skin and seared through the tissue." The scorched remains of a human body are lifted onto a bed and later onto a bedpan. He screams at the first touch of their hands. It is difficult to find a vein to give him morphine.
There are legs turned "black and soft, like an overripe banana." She applies cotton-wool soaked in alcohol so gingerly, tentatively, for fear that the skin would simply come away with the barest touch.
So much was beyond reclamation: "Screens were drawn round the padre's bedside murmur, the sheet pulled up, the porters called, the bed stripped and remade."
To function, probationers abandon themselves to the fear of the ward sister's disapproval. That way, the thoughtful "might be delivered from introspection" and nausea.
Fatigue, exhaustion - no anesthetic for sorrow and regret
At one point, the young nurse who could never shake her literary ambitions decides that her manuscripts will deliver only thoughts and feelings. "Plots," she resolves, "were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer run."
Like Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Ian McEwan's Atonement is masterfully plotted, even if challengingly so. The many intricate pieces - the descriptions and depictions, the recollections and revelations - are so finely wrought - that they can be appreciated and admired again, with each visit.
In both novels, the closing pages memorialize memories and rue what cannot be recaptured, recovered, and fixed.
In both novels, the reader is advised of wounds (memories) that fester - of wounds that are lethal; of wounds that are "survived" but which do not heal. These are novels that deliver, through fiction, the nonfictions of war.