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Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

November 21, 2011

It took Marlantes, a decorated Marine lieutenant, 35 years to finish this novel based on his experience in Vietnam. It is the story of Marine lieutenant Waino Mellas, Bravo Company, and their relationship to Matterhorn, a fictional mountain deep in the jungles of Vietnam. As Marlantes relates in an interview with Mother Jones, Matterhorn (the mountain) is his metaphor for the entire war. “We built it, we abandoned it, we assaulted it, we lost, and then we abandoned it again.”

The geography, the mountains and the jungle, are a central character in this novel. In some of the more overt philosophy, Mellas considers how this landscape, stripped, burned and cleared by the armaments and battles there, will quickly recover. Its scars will heal and this event will be long forgotten. In the face of something so immense, the Marines are nothing, and from the beginning of the novel—when an especially unlucky soldier finds a leech halfway up his urethra, and shortly thereafter another soldier is attacked by a tiger—we are constantly reminded that the jungle will win in the end.

Placing the war in the context of the broader culture clash of the 1960’s, the ugly racial tension of the era infects Bravo Company and is woven throughout the narrative. Mellas is little more than a naïve kid when he arrives in Vietnam, and his understanding of race relations is no exception. He innocently questions the black soldiers in order to understand the issues at hand and find some kind of solution at first. Sometimes he is relatively successful, but he ultimately realizes that he’s not going to make peace—he’s just struggling to keep his unit from breaking apart from its own inner conflict.

Another central theme of the novel—the absurdity of the politics of the war—is not a new one, but it is especially pointed here. At times, it reminded me of Catch-22, only less comical. The most crushing moment comes after the Marines claim Matterhorn and fortify it, then are ordered off the mountaintop to assist in a politically expedient battle elsewhere, only to be ordered to retake Matterhorn, where the NVA is now entrenched in the very fortifications that the Marines built. This is what Marlantes is referring to when he calls Matterhorn his metaphor for the entire war. But he makes the metaphor, in that moment when the Marines are ordered to retake Matterhorn, excruciatingly tangible.

Some of the other elements of the novel are less original, but effective nonetheless. The cast of characters and the way they deal with their fear, come to grips with the death around them as well as the killing they themselves do, is well-trod ground in war literature, but I don’t know how you would write a war story without it. And although it seems familiar, Marlantes’ take never feels stock. If the job of a novel it to transport the reader and provide a visceral experience, then Matterhorn succeeds in spades.

I listened to the audiobook production of Matterhorn, narrated by Bronson Pinchot, who does a masterful job. Audiobook narration is an art form in itself. At the very least, one hopes that the narrator doesn’t distract from the author’s work. But at its best, as here, a good narrator can breathe life into the author’s voice and fill the mind’s theater with vivid, life-like characters, making the novel that much more of a transportive experience.

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