Book Review : A Forgotten Soldier in the War of Life

Times Book Critic

A Lamb to Slaughter by Jan Monteyn and Dirk Ayelt Kooiman (Viking: $16.95)

"Nothing lives less in me than my life," declared the protagonist of "Kaspar Hauser," Werner Herzog's moving film parable about a man hidden away since infancy in a cave, pushed suddenly into the world, and just as suddenly struck down.

Jan Monteyn is another figure divided from himself by the blows of a life lived in brutally arbitrary times. "A Lamb to Slaughter" is his record, set down originally for therapy when Monteyn found himself in a psychiatric hospital, and later revised and rewritten with the help of a fellow Dutchman, the literary editor Dirk Kooiman.

Monteyn, a painter and printmaker of some repute, was another casualty of World War II, and his book in a sense is one more account of a life buffeted about from one disaster to the next. It is distinguished from the flood of such accounts principally by two things.

One is his affiliation. After the Germans invaded Holland, Monteyn ran off from a benevolent but constricted small-town home life to a Nazi-run youth camp in Austria. He went on to join the German navy, where he was blown up while serving on a mine sweeper. After the navy was largely sunk or disabled, he went on to fight the Russians in the trenches of the Eastern Front.

The second distinctiveness is the tone. Monteyn recounts the horrors of war and his subsequent tormented life as a bisexual painter, soldier of fortune, forger and relief worker with a voice that is flat to the point of deadness. His suffering, despair and sporadic love and exhilaration all come across with the same chilly numbness. Nothing lives less in himself than his life.

Unvarying Bleakness

It has difficulty living in the reader, as well. As distanced as a Brechtian narration but without the wit, Monteyn's voice is as minatory as a death's-head. It can be impressive but its bleakness is unvarying. Where the incidents he relates are especially grotesque or striking, they hold us; where they are like so many other horrors we have read about, there is no individual sensibility to keep us. The story of somebody's Uncle Charlie may be commonplace, but if we care about Uncle Charlie, the commonplace will come to life. Monteyn, in this book, is little more than what happened to him.

True, this was considerable. If he joined the German war machine, he says, it was because it was the only thing moving. His family was rigorously churchgoing and constrained; his father, a decorator, was a kind man but when, in the tiny pietistic congregation they belonged to, his wife was told that she "would shrivel in hell," he sat peaceably by, saying nothing.

Monteyn's account of the rigors of mine-sweeping in the frozen Baltic, of being blown up, and of his months in the deadly trenches on the Eastern Front are grim enough. They lack much distinguishing detail, apart from his story about a fellow soldier who set off a hand grenade on top of his helmet to demonstrate its protective qualities, and had his face torn off.

Rescue Work

He writes of rescue work in Hanover during the air raids. When the shelters were opened, the firestorm overhead had turned them into ovens. He writes of the cautiously measured retreat of the disorganized German forces away from the advancing Russians and toward the American lines. It had to be cautious; too rapid a retreat would be taken as desertion by the ruthless squads of German military police who strung up fugitives or shot them.

On a brief furlough home, Monteyn, in German uniform, visits a brother-in-law who is working with the resistance. There is an awkward no-man's-land between them; for a moment, Monteyn thinks of deserting and joining the resistors. What prevents him is banal enough--he can't face the monotony of remaining at home--but perhaps it is Arendt's banality.

He is captured by the Allies, escapes, and joins the Foreign Legion; deserts, is imprisoned again in Holland for fighting on the wrong side. When he gets out he drifts, works at painting, and is consumed once more by restlessness. He goes to Korea with a Dutch contingent and is wounded. Later he will be driven back to war; this time as a relief worker in Southeast Asia.

A Chilly Ardor

He tells with a kind of chilly ardor of his love for two young men and later, for two women. The most curious and interesting episode is his stint as creator and curator of a war museum for the Dutch Guards regiment. A sergeant, he had a chauffeured car, funds and freedom. And after work, his eternal unease drove him to bouts of drinking, to sex orgies and suicide attempts. The carnage he had witnessed was too much for him, he writes, and he suffered a mental breakdown.

After his refugee work in Vietnam--at one point he was arrested as a spy by the South Vietnamese and kept for days in a deep pit--he comes to a bleak surcease. He marries and has a daughter, and his last lines dedicate his book to her:

"This is the world, Carolynne.

"We shall do our best to give you a happy life."

There is no conscious irony in the lines; irony might have helped. In a way, it might have warmed the absolute zero of that word happy.

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