Daniel Mason Wakes the Demons of the Great War
While the act of waging war might very well date back to the invention of the club, our understanding of its effects on us is something we’ve only begun to explore very recently. The further we go back in time, the more veterans were left to their own devices to deal with the nightmares which inevitably followed their service.
In Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier, we are transported back to the forgotten battlefields of the First World War, to witness its many demons through the eyes of a healer: Lucius Krelewski.
Transporting us to Vienna in 1914, Lucius is just a medical student intent on finishing his studies and pursuing his passion for science, when suddenly the war breaks out. Filled with patriotism and love for his nation, Lucius decides to enlist in the Austrian medical corps despite having no actual experience treating real patients. Armed with his largely theoretical knowledge, Lucius sets out on what he believes will be a grandiose and memorable adventure destined to define his life, and in a sense he is correct.
When he arrives at his designated place of service, the reality of the situation begins to dawn on him. Instead of working in an organized hospital, Lucius finds himself in a small repurposed church stuck away somewhere in the mountains.
All the doctors have already vacated, and the only remaining colleague is a nurse, Sister Margarete. To make matters worse, the outpost is suffering from an outbreak of typhus, and the only available medicine is of the makeshift and rudimentary kind. As the war rages on, promising to get only bloodier and more savage, Lucius begins amassing his own personal collection of demons, ones who will follow him long after the war.
Unforgettable Memories of Atrocity in The Winter Soldier
As I mentioned it before, we’ve only begun being preoccupied with the after-effects of war on its participants in a relatively recent capacity. While I think it’s too early to say we’ve done great strides, we’ve at least begun heading in the right direction.
As such, I think we’re going to see a rise in the near future of books such as The Winter Soldier, aiming to look back at some of the greater conflicts of mankind’s history through a more modern and emotionally-sensitive perspective. Personally, I think it’s important to understand the suffering our predecessors went through, which is consequently why I felt I had a more personal interest in this novel than some of you might.
While the story doesn’t spend every single second pondering about the atrocity of war and the demons it gives birth to, there are numerous moments, some more subtle than others, which try to showcase the many ways in which people are psychologically affected by witnessing death and carnage, if not participating in it directly.
As you might have expected considering the subject matter, there are many darker moments which are a bit more difficult to get through, and they are written poignantly enough to really stick to the back of your mind until the end.
A bit like the characters themselves, we spend the book accumulating our own demons, and whether it was intentional or not, in my eyes this turned out to be the book’s greatest strength. Because we can partially mirror the experience the characters are going through, we aren’t just reading a story about them anymore, but we are experiencing the events alongside with them, giving them a very real and tangible impact. All in all, I think Mason did an excellent job at driving home the idea of war being a lifelong devastation for all those involved in it.
The Mysterious Straggler
While the exploration of the reality behind PTSD is indeed fascinating in its own right, it would end up lacking substance if The Winter Soldier didn’t have a rather intriguing plot to go along with it.
Set in motion by the arrival of Horvath, a “shell-shocked” soldier who finds his way to the outpost, the plot is actually much more expansive than you would have expected at first glance, following Lucius as he first learns first-hand about the barbaric nature of Man, and then tries to establish a life for himself in the years after.
While I wouldn’t say it moves along quickly (as a matter of fact, the start is relatively slow), but the deeper we go into it the more we seem to be treated to different locales and new characters. In other words, the plot moves along enough to keep things from becoming too stale.
I wouldn’t say there are any really big twists, nor a lot of action to go around. More than anything, this is what I like to call a “thinking reader’s” type of novel; it moves enough to show clear signs of life, but not fast enough to stop you from pondering about the subject matter.
Now, it is true some of the later chapters lose a bit of steam here and there (especially Lucius’ train rides), but I think overall the story is held together by a specific element: the realism behind Mason’s writing.
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It’s not surprising to learn the author is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford considering the detail and accuracy with which he describes various medical conditions, from lice to amputation. He has a very good idea of how to make his descriptions memorable, knowing which images and combinations of words will stand out and stick in our relatively predictable human minds.
The Final Verdict
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, while in my opinion an excellent novel, isn’t exactly for everyone. If you aren’t averse to slower-paced novels which push you to think, and if you aren’t dissuaded by accurate and at times gruesome portrayals of war’s ungainly realities, then I think you will find this book to make for a rather interesting read.
Daniel Mason is an American physician and novelist with a BA in biology from Harvard University, in addition to which he graduated from the UCSF School of Medicine.
His first novel, The Piano Tuner, was written while he was still a medical student and has been received with widespread acclaim, even becoming the basis for a 2004 opera of the same name.
His other novels include A Far Country , Death of the Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw, and The Winter Soldier.