By Nyambura Mutanyi
First published in 1942 as World War II raged, this book is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago. In this story that stirred so much controversy when it was released, Steinbeck speaks to that time in history and to us, an admirable feat.
The story opens in a beguiling fashion. The area seems pacified and its most important citizens to have acquiesced to the invaders. The invasion is fairly bloodless as these things go and there is a lot of dignity in the way the invaders deal with the town’s leaders. A few inconveniences, yes, but nothing that cannot be persevered by the townspeople.
We view a snapshot of the war. This is not a sweeping tale of war but of its effect on an unnamed hamlet in an occupied nation. The people espouse non-violent means of resistance as the occupiers try to work them to the point of death. Some of the conditions the book speaks of are haunting. Think concentration camps where the men get to go home to their hungry children each day. The indignities embolden the men-and women-of the town and take their toll on the occupiers.
The occupiers: their presence in the town is the very basis of the story and they provide insight into the nature of war. The duplicity of the people who recruit the soldiers is brought to bear on the lives of the young men tasked with keeping the population under control. The revelations in the conversations the soldiers have brought Asterix to mind. Not just for the rendering of the lives of soldiers but also for the insight into unrealised dreams. Steinbeck told their story with a sympathy that one rarely sees in writing of the enemy. These men are not war machines; they have loves, passions, desires. These qualities, so endearing in a free world, are no assets in the occupied land.
The telling of the means of resistance among the people fills the reader with hope and opens one’s eyes. War has the curious ability to break and build the people at both ends of the spectrum. There is no winner, this book asserts, those that benefit the most participate the least. We see the citizens transform into shadows of their former selves and one can’t help but wonder: to what end? That Steinbeck delivers the message with brilliance and force cannot be disputed.
The humanity of the soldiers is explored as is that of the occupied. The triumph of those things so easily taken for granted by some people-liberty, justice, self-government-over force is brought out with beauty. Yes, beauty, for though it speaks of war there is something of inestimable beauty in the strength that the people reveal.
John Steinbeck wrote books that captured moments in history that are still highly readable. Anyone who has read Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath will recognise his classic style and those not familiar with him will have a fine introduction. Its memorable characters and wonderful suspense make this short novel a gem.
The Moon is Down can be downloaded here