Wërra. Federico Jeanmaire. Barcelona: Anagrama. 2020. 399 pages.
In April 2018, a narrator who shall remain unnamed but who shares all the autobiographical details of Federico Jeanmaire intimately reenacts a battle that happened in March 1942, Operation Chariot, while strolling through a French town. “Do wars that happen far away from where we sleep or drink our coffee not happen to us?” he speculates on the first page of the book, only to immediately conclude, “I certainly believe that anything that doesn’t happen to us, doesn’t happen.” Instantly, a voice reveals itself: probably much like the author’s, unequivocally Argentine, somewhat bourgeois, but also thoughtful, autobiographical, extremely informative while intensely personal. Jeanmarie’s plan is to exorcise the Berkeleian relativism with which wars are enshrouded, to force what doesn’t happen to us happen to us, to make the wars that happen far away from where we sleep or drink our coffee actually happen to us, and he succeeds at it.
Wërra is, in essence, a narrative essay that overlays four storylines to relate Jeanmaire’s view of what wars really are. First, we get an account of Operation Chariot, in which an obsolete English destroyer, disguised as a German ship, crashes into the only dry dock the Germans had in the Atlantic. A chariot, in French, is a cart, a vehicle that can carry something; it is a perfect name for this famous British war action because that ship is in truth a modern Trojan horse carrying three bombs that eventually explode, destroying the German navy’s ability to repair its ships without having to return to Germany. The details about the craftiness of the attack carry the action forward and add suspense and imagination to the plot, working primarily as a chariot, a vehicle for Jeanmaire to transport his readers to the experience of war, to all wars, to that which does not happen to them.
Jeanmaire’s second storyline is an intent at personalizing the action and, somehow, saving the dead. Jeanmaire organizes his book in 287 small chapters based on the names of the 287 soldiers and residents who died during the attack and are listed on a small commemorative monolith in Saint-Nazaire. He endeavors to make them burst out of the monolith: “I find it increasingly difficult to discover what is hidden behind each of those inscribed on the small plaque at the base of the monolith that commemorates the battle near the Vieux Môle”; he tries to embody their war experiences beyond the victorious narratives of survivors and historians, to look at their photos and simply think “he looks like a nice guy.” If history is written by the victors and suffered by the defeated, Jeanmaire’s work gives voice to the dead, to their fears, to their deaths.
Like most of his readers, Jeanmaire has never served in a war. That is probably why his narrator is also determined to reenact what the men that are named on the monolith experienced, to make it happen to him. Jeanmaire’s third storyline takes us for a walk through the battle sites in his narrator’s head; he feels the fear of those men, he tries to immerse himself—and us—in the skin of those who actually lived through the event and make us feel, like his narrator, that we could not open the door of some rooms “fearfully anticipating that German ghost soldiers could get in there on any given night”.
Finally, Jeanmaire gives us access to his personal “experiences” of war, to the tin soldiers produced by his grandfather, to the many hours watching Combat!, the sixties TV show, with his father, to his native Argentina and that other war, the Malvinas War, that “did not happen” for anyone in Argentina aside from those who fought there and their families; the storylines that link the war in France with other wars, with children’s games, with the idealized versions of war on television, the ones that make any account of a war, the War.
Wërra is my favorite war novel written in Spanish. The war theme produced great mythical constructions, as in the Iliad, and complex theorizing about the meaning of history, as in Tolstoy; what I deeply enjoyed about Jeanmaire’s new novel is the simplicity and originality with which he demystifies war. Homer probably saw his epic—the exaltation of war heroes and the explanation of the motives of the gods—as functional for the success of future wars. Jeanmaire rejects the epic because epics re-fuel wars: because for those next wars “men with a desire to become heroes will again be needed.” Tolstoy saw his monumental War and Peace as an opportunity for the novel to explain history, as an attempt to answer the question that “arose in every soul: for what, for whom, must I kill and be killed,” as a way of ending the Hegelian idea that it is Napoleon or other “great men” that lead humanity into wars and determine its fate. Jeanmarie is less concerned with history than with the fact that Angelo Zallio, the last name on the monolith plaque, like so many others, “was killed by the bullshit of real war when he had just turned fifteen.” Simplifying Tolstoy, Jeanmaire proposes that all wars are bullshit; Wërra, the “battle cry of the primitive German warriors,” forfeits its exclamation mark, loses the excitement that motivates the human spirit into battle and becomes an intimate yet universal murmur about the courage to resist war.
Carolina Sitya Nin
Oklahoma State University