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A darker view of World War II

Nicholson Baker uses historical vignettes to suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘good war.’

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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization is an original, provocative, sometimes breathtaking read. At its core lies a simple but highly debatable message: War is never right. Up until now, Baker has been best known as the author of minutely observed works of fiction (“The Mezzanine”, “A Box of Matches”).

Here, he studies the runup to World War II and his nonfiction treatment becomes almost a piece of visual art. After combing through volumes of material – newspaper and magazine stories, radio speeches, letters, memoirs, diaries – Baker snips bits and pieces of vignettes that interest him. These fragments (none more than a few paragraphs long) are arranged collagelike to tell the story of the folly and human error involved in war.

Baker’s take on the Second World War is not likely to be popular. Most of us are accustomed to thinking of World War II as “the good war,” a war that needed to be fought. What Baker does is to rearrange the furniture in a familiar room. Without commentary, simply through the pieces he chooses to include and the way in which he orders them, he suggests that it’s far too simple to call the Allies the good guys and the Axis the bad. If there is a villain in “Human Smoke,” it’s whatever it is in human nature that sees war as a solution.

“Human Smoke” begins in August 1892, with explosives manufacturer Alfred Nobel wondering if soon all armies will not “recoil with horror and disband their troops.” It finishes on the last day of 1941 (shortly after the United States’ entry into the war), with Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian, in Bucharest, writing in his journal, “There is still time; we still have some time left.”


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