Friday, November 6, 2015

From the Ground Up: One Rabbit Tells the Story of War in The Sage of Waterloo, by Leona Francombe

Why tell a story from the perspective of an animal? Especially when it's a small, rodent-like creature that will be sure to correct you that he's actually a 'lagomorph' and not a rodent? And retell a war story, such as the run-up and aftermath of a battle like Waterloo?

These were my questions when I began Leona Francombe's tidy novel The Sage of Waterloo. The story spirals outward from the rabbit hutch on Hougoumont, a farm that Wellington and his British troops held as firmly as possible as they repelled the power-hungry emperor, Napoleon. Tucked in Hougoumont is the pen and hutch from which the narrator of Francombe's story, William the rabbit, is told.

The most recent 'animal fiction' I've reread was the classic Animal Farm. But that doesn't count or compare in this case, as it is so purely an allegory and political message that the animals are clear stand-ins for historical figures. The other was Niki: The Story of a Dog, which takes place in Hungary in the ruined, shattered landscape after World War II, is a story more about the dog's relationship to its owners, and the personal catastrophe that befalls them when the husband is hauled away in a political crackdown. It is also, of course, a reason to step into the complex political situation of the time.

So where does The Sage of Waterloo fall into place, and what is its purpose? 

By the end of the novel, it's quite clear why Francombe would subject her reader to see and hear and learn about Waterloo's grotesque history through a small, domesticated farm animal, but it's hinted at early on:

"Our point of view is a gift," she said [William's grandmother, Old Lavender]. "We understand essential minutiae, in our species and in humans: unease in a voice or gesture; electricity sparked by panic or excitement; signals betraying doubt, joy, grief. And don't forget the rich realm of smell. What an encyclopedia that is! Any one of you could have picked up Napoleon's stress on the eve of battle." Grandmother went on to say that Napoleon's very pores had exuded the sort of anxiety that even the dullest animal wit can pick up. His human entourage, however, could only go by less subtle pointers: loud, agitated talking, and orders issued with great vehemence; constant snuff-taking, and the supreme confidence that he would be sleeping at the royal palace in Brussels after his victory (30).

It is that rabbit's point of view that allows Francombe to take her reader back through Waterloo and the events leading up to it. With that heightened smell and sixth sense of animals, we are given a new construct by which to consider war, and why men go to war, and what it means two hundred years later, long after humanity has dwindled the horrors of Waterloo to statistics, military maneuvers, and anecdotes, but, as Old Lavender says, "Nature never truly recovers from human cataclysms" (37).

There is energy, indelibly impressed into that spot of earth that it seems only the animals can appreciate. We get a damning assessment from a black bird named Arthur of how carelessly humans toss aside their greatest violent follies. He tells our rabbit hero:

"People lounge on the terrace, drinking their coffees...clueless they're facing a field where the rye was completely flattened by corpses of their own kind, shot and hacked to death. Oh, they think they know what happened there. But their evolutionary progress seems to be in reverse. They gradually forget the magnitude of what they've done--or at least, they've managed to disguise their violence as glory--so eventually, in the course of time, they can no longer feel what still hangs in the air. Not the way we do. So they don't have any qualms about building cafes on burial grounds. They've never really stamped out their zeal for warmongering--quite the opposite, actually. They can't seem to get enough of it" (146).

Of course, many of you have had those insights before. For sensitive, bookworm souls, we can easily get lost imagining the horrors of atrocious historical events, and many of us feel the same way as wars and proxy wars rage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. Men using other men to conquer people. So being chided by something other than a peacenik, in this case a blackbird, is more satisfying than you might think.

For that intimate, gentler view of war that Francombe seems to be after, the mind needs the excuse of just the right kind of narrative to jump into an event as brutal as Waterloo. A history book, a college textbook, a documentary, could never really capture the catastrophic disturbance like it does from Francombe playing up the rabbit's perspective. Richard Holmes, for all of his awe-inspiring recollections of famous battle scenes he did for the BBC, couldn't approach war the way The Sage of Waterloo does.

In contrast to the facts and reenactments of war carried out by grown men dressed in colorful uniforms, firing blanks at each other across the fields around Hougoumont two hundred years after the blood has soaked into the soil, it is from the jumpy nervous system of a lagomorph that we see the painful twitches and coincidences of a haunting human history merge with the every day struggle of living the life of a prey animal.

We learn that Wellington had taken a ride in the early morning of June 18, the day of battle, and had halted, unknowingly, only ten yards from a French sniper:

The man, hidden in the undergrowth, didn't fire. Had he even recognized his target? one wonders. Wellington had been wearing a plain blue coat and cloak, after all. Perhaps, addled by circumstance, and suffering from a momentarily frozen trigger finger, the sniper had had a change of heart.

No amount of vigilance can wrest control from providence--or however you wish to call the powerful force that can, without notice, render even history just a featherweight on the wind. From the mighty Wellington to a humble rabbit, outcomes maddeningly, inescapably depend on myopic snipers or absent hawks; on the thickness of the mud or a hollow under the fence; on whether or not the corn--or begonias--hold up as escape routes (108-9).

Taking the POV of a rabbit presents a number of narrative pitfalls, and requires nimble footing from the author avoid them. For one, how much about human life can an animal, a rabbit, really understand? William is a precocious rabbit, and Francombe does a fairly good job in keeping the text tight enough and close enough to William's perception that once the great leap of faith is taken by the reader in the first few pages, it is not difficult to be tugged along the story path by a rabbit.

There are some oversights, though. It's very difficult to suspend one's disbelief when William mentions how the clumsy boy who sometimes feeds them usually plays games on his cell phone. How might a rabbit know about this? If weaving in and out of Waterloo facts and anecdotes is done skillfully enough to make me imagine the torment of the time, it is quips like those that throw me out of the narrative.

Yes, the rabbits understand human beings, and get exposed to a few of them who come as tourists to Hougoumont, but there is a fine balance to how much the reader will swallow. When William compares Old Lavender's storytelling to that of movie-making, and "the panorama she created" as a "natural film director", the balance just tips off scale. There are more instances like that.

The Sage of Waterloo is an innocent, intimate retelling of a well-known cataclysm in human history, and begs us to reflect deeper on the energy and impulses behind our seemingly constant mass warfare, and to value the meeker, quieter, more modest forms of life on earth and, through that lens, find our own wellspring of compassion to grow softer hearts, especially when considering our role as dominant thinkers and movers on this planet filled with life we humans might otherwise take for granted.

You won't learn more about Waterloo from the novel than you would from a thirty-minute documentary, but I'm willing to bet you'll remember Francombe's version more clearly, and for a longer time to come.

Leona Francombe. The Sage of Waterloo. 222 pages.

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