Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Re-reading Catch 22




I had no memory of this novel at all, although I know I read it all those years and years ago. Of course I know what “catch 22” means, and I had some vague memories of pilots having to fly more and more missions, but I am not sure whether I remembered it from the book or from the film. I know for sure that I remembered the most gory detail from the film and was waiting for it to turn up in the book. It did, at the very end. I don't know whether the knowledge spoiled my reading experience.

I am confident that I didn't understand anything of the novel when I read it fifty years ago, and as with most books on my re-reading list, I wonder how much I bluffed then. The plot is non-existent, and at that time plot was more important than anything else. The book is exceptionally repetitive, and an inexperienced reader – as I was then – would certainly get bored, unaware that repetition is the most prominent and of course deliberate narrative device. It is used in conjunction with another powerful device: omission, or paralipsis, to use a fancy word. The same episode is told over and over again, each time slightly differently and each time omitting the most significant detail that would explain everything that is going on. How clever! It also employs an intricate temporality as events follow upon each other randomly, as deviations, by association, connected solely by a reminiscence, or even without any tangible connection at all. Each chapter seemingly focuses on a secondary or sometimes completely peripheral character, and only in hindsight do we understand why the story had to be told at all. If I were still an active academic I would write an article on this novel and include it in my courses. Not as a war novel, but as an example of exquisite storytelling.

However, the greatest surprise to me was that the novel is so wonderfully hilarious. Of course I remembered, more from criticism than from actual reading, that it was a satire on war. Yet a satire is not necessarily funny, and the novel is. I don't often laugh outloud when I read, but I did. Pity nobody was listening except my cats. I would almost claim that Catch 22 is the twentieth-century reply to Alice in Wonderland with its twisted logic and magnificent wordplay. Maybe this is the only possible way to write about the horrors of war.

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