A sad fact about the battlefield is being confirmed in all the news coverage of Robert Bales’s alleged massacre of 16 Afghan civilians. War is a terribly nationalizing force. So over the past 10 days Americans have learned quite a lot about PTSD and the unbearable stresses of being a soldier. We have heard virtually nothing on the radio or in newspapers about the shattered lives of the victims and their families.
This should not be a surprise. War is an exercise in the triumph of action over empathy. For those in search of another side of the story, Stephen Dau’s “The Book of Jonas’’ could not be more timely. Set in a near present tense, it tracks the journey of a young Muslim man whose family is killed, his village decimated in a US airstrike. He comes to America a refugee - with nothing but his name. Midflight, he abandons that too, taking on the name Jonas.
Dau, who spent a decade working in postwar reconstruction, knows well how far war flings its victims: its scattershot power. Jonas lands in Pittsburgh, where he is raised by God-fearing Christians, and counseled by a man named Paul. The story unfolds in short prose bursts, which toggle back and forward in time, introducing the jangle of Jonas’s memories and the ways they come back to him.
There are some purposeful resonances here. In the Hebrew bible, the book of Jonah tells of a man whom God instructs to prophecy the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah flees, hoping to shirk his duty, and in the course of this flight he winds up in the belly of a whale. Three days later, he is burped out and heeds God’s original call.
Dau adeptly plays with the tensions of this original story. Jonas is a stubborn adolescent; too smart for his own good, too prideful to fight back when he is mercilessly teased. He is not a believer - not in God, certainly not in therapy. When Paul or another therapist ask him questions, beg him to be a living witness to war, Jonas often makes up the answers. Having his own life’s narrative obliterated has given him little faith in mercy, or storytelling.
Jonas is by far the most impressive thing about this novel. In moments, Dau’s riffs on the young man’s life recall the dense beauty of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.’’ Like that book, this is a tale obsessed with the way war can fracture memory and cauterize the place where love can begin. “He keeps a portion of his heart to himself,’’ Dau writes as Jonas teeters into - and then out of - his first love affair.
Eventually the urge for oblivion catches up with Jonas, and he finds ways to soothe it. He drinks, mostly, and hangs out with an angry Kurdish man who left his homeland when he was 2. Jonas almost blots out one of his most painful memories: how he was rescued from the massacre of his village by an American Marine named Chris Henderson. This man gave Jonas a book, a diary of sorts, passages of which are spliced into this novel in italics. They tell the story of a soldier reluctantly realizing he has been party to a terrible crime.
Would that Chris’s voice felt as believable as Jonas’s fractured mind; it doesn’t. Henderson’s agonized repetitions remind one of the worst instincts in language poetry; his sensitivity and searching soliloquies feel like wish fulfillment, as if a soldier with a conscience can only be a poet.
There is something admirable about a novel that tries so hard to remind us that war makes brothers of soldiers and victims. One of the most powerful sections of this book occurs when Jonas goes to visit the home of Henderson’s mother. Dau describes her tidy house and its frozen-in-time portraits of her dead son with a care that is nearly devotional.
Jonas, we are made to understand, may look free, but he too is stuck at about the time of Henderson’s picture. His trauma has been flash-frozen into his core, leaving him at once hard and brittle. For many refugees, there is no coming back from such fractures. They carry it with them, silently, secretly.
Stephen Dau has given himself a nearly impossible task: to give voice to this experience of trauma, and yet also defang its righteous fury. Jonas, as it turns out, may be emotionally wounded. But he is not innocent himself. Approaching this novel’s Hollywood conclusion, we discover that he too has something for which he needs to atone.
This fateful symmetry isn’t necessary to “The Book of Jonas.’’ In fact, what is missing from this book is not a moral balance sheet, but a greater sense of the scouring nature of loss. Jonas’s mother and father appear briefly, in gauzy flickers of a film reel, his sister hardly at all.
Perhaps that is too much to ask of this short novel. Here is a civilian casualty, it proffers, here is a soldier’s grieving mother. Their juxtaposition in “The Book of Jonas’’ is too convenient to be artful, too hopeful to be wise - and powerful nonetheless. If only our news had such radical belief in the power of empathy.