Good vs evil

20 October 2015

It is almost universally acknowledged that New Zealand is rugby mad and that the wellbeing of the nation rises and falls with the fortunes of the All Blacks. This is never truer than during a world cup competition. I am among those who know that the sky will not fall in if the All Blacks lose and I have never watched an entire test match.

I read the New Zealand Herald online daily, completely ignoring the numerous rugby stories. But even I read the story that presented the upcoming world cup semi-final between the All Blacks and the Springboks as a contest “between good and evil”. This is the opinion of Herald sports reporter Chris Rattue (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=11531121).The All Blacks are good (because they are “the only team capable of making a difficult game to play thrilling to watch” according to Rattue) and the Springboks are evil (because they “scrape the bottom of the rugby tactics barrel” he says) and he wishes the latter “worst of luck” in the semi-final.

Surely that is taking things too far, I thought, particularly in light of the novel I was reading at the time, which was Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, 2015). He has been one of my favourite writers over the years and I enjoyed his earlier novels like Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. I didn’t much like Engleby and he has since written a Bond novel and a new Jeeves & Wooster. But with this latest book, he is back to his serious best and I highly recommend it.

The main character and narrator is Dr Robert Hendricks, an English psychologist who we learn is 60 in 1980. Through the recounting of his memories, we are taken on a trip through the worst conflicts of the 20th century – his father died at the end of the first war and he fought in the second. However, it is far from just another war story. One of the themes of the novel is memory – how people suppress memories that are too painful; how unreliable memory can be; how memories can resurface years later and take us by surprise. That Hendricks is a psychologist makes him an ideal narrator and there is some exploration of developments in the field of analysis and the treatment of mentally ill people during the course of the last century.

There is an intriguing offer for Hendricks from Dr Pereira, who is a World War I survivor and is also a psychologist. Pereira met Hendricks’s father, who he never really knew, on the western front and the unfolding of that story is the device Faulks uses to dissect Hendricks’s past. There is also a tragic love story woven in. The novel is beautifully constructed and never descends to the morbid, the prurient or the sentimental. Its power is in revealing how fragile the human mind is and how the brutal events of the last century (and indeed those of this century) can shatter it.

In a letter written to his wife during the war, Robert’s father says:
“I wasn’t a fool, I knew there was evil in the world and there were wars. But not like this, not whole populations standing up to be slaughtered … I knew the difference between right and wrong. Now I don’t know anything.”
This puts the good vs evil notion into perspective. That Rattue should use the same notion to describe a mere rugby match seems ludicrous.

And for the record, I couldn’t care less who wins the 2015 rugby world cup!

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