Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2011

Traitor, by Stephen Daisley

Traitor is a very confronting novel.  It reminds me of Pat Barker’s Regeneration* trilogy in its treatment of shell-shocked soldiers though the writing style couldn’t be more different.   There are brutal descriptions of World War I battlefields and the wounded, and the scenes of punishment meted out to the soldier David Monroe will appal even the stony-hearted.  The novel shows the power of fiction to create an impact even in a society like ours that has a surfeit of popular histories about its military past.

Daisley has constructed his novel in fragments, some of which are clear and easy to understand, and some which are the muddled memories of a man whose mind was shattered by his experiences.  The story shifts back-and-forth across the 20th century from David’s wartime experiences to his postwar return to New Zealand and his old age as a shepherd in the mountains.  What makes for even greater confusion is that the event which forever labels David as a traitor, is his friendship with a Turkish mystic.

Mahmoud is an adherent of Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam; he is a whirling Dervish. When on the battlefield of Gallipoli they meet over the body of a dying man, Mahmoud, a medic, espouses a religious philosophy which appeals to Monroe because of the madness of the war.  This philosophy, relayed as it is through scraps of memory in David’s half-crazed mind, is often very obscure.  David frequently doesn’t know what Mahmoud means by his strange sayings either, but he takes comfort in the man’s serenity.  And shell-shocked from the explosion that wounds them both, he risks everything to help the enemy, and pays a terrible price for it.

So Traitor is not an easy book to read.  There is some exquisite writing (see my Sensational Snippet) but there are also distressing scenes – and not only on the battlefield.  Few authors can have so powerfully expressed a mother’s grief or a daughter’s anguish.   Numerous segments are puzzling indeed.  But if the reader surrenders to confusion, the pieces of the puzzle eventually resolve into a kind of redemption.

As in the iconic All Quiet on the Western Front, Daisley has rendered the paradox and the pity of this most stupid of wars perfectly.  It required the brotherhood of man, separated only by the accident of geopolitics, to hate and kill each other, for reasons they barely understood.

Traitor, by Stephen Daisley, was the winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.  James Bradley reviewed it at The Australian. 

© Lisa Hill

Author: Stephen Daisley
Title: Traitor
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656491
Source: Casey Cardinia Library

Availability:
Text Publishing
Readings eBooks
Boomerang Books

*Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy comprises Regeneration, The Ghost Road and The Eye in the Door.


Responses

  1. I like what you say about surrendering to the confusion. That is the only way to read some books I’ve decided rather than getting too bogged down in understanding every step of the way, because sometimes you just can’t.

    • I’m doing the same thing now that I’m reading Herta Muller’s The Passport. She makes allusions (I think) to Rumanian folklore – which of course I know nothing about. So I just read on, and maybe it will resolve into some theme or motif that I understand, or maybe it won’t. If I’m really mystified I’ll make a note of it and look it up on the net when I’ve finished reading the book.(This is how I approach James Joyce too)
      It’s a bit like learning a language – if you have a tolerance for not quite understanding fully but you get the gist, you can enjoy the experience even if you don’t understand everything in a literal way.

  2. I found this one of the most moving books I have read in a long time. The sheer power of honour and conviction portrayed in the quiet strength of David Monroe managed to restore some of my faith in humanity in this cynical world of war and crime.

    I did not have a problem following the thread of the flashbacks as some friends who read it have commented but then I tend to let the author’s skill at narration lead me through a story rather than battling against it.

    I also connected with the character of a shepherd, familiar with death as part of life on a farm and accepting (as many men did) his duty to country going to war. Confronting death and killing was not something that bothered him until he made the connection with Mahmood the Man and realised the mistake being made by everyone signing up to the blind concept of war. Having studied a great deal of WWI oral histories in my work life and having had a partner come through military training, I was completely convinced by Stephen Daisley’s portrayal of a simple New Zealand shepherd of the time. David Monroe understood that to be a man of his time and a good and dutiful soldier meant taking orders without question but also rising up to lead others.

    I thought this a tremendous first novel and can’t wait for more from Stephen Daisley.

    • Hello Louise and welcome! How nice it is to have a visitor from New Zealand:)
      I think Daisley is a writer of great promise too, and I’m hoping he’s working on a new novel as well:)

  3. I agree this story is wonderful. Very moving, and as I was in Turkey last year it added meaning to me. I also thought the writing was absolutely beautiful. I do hope Traitor wins a prize and given the recognition it deserves.

  4. […] the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and the NSW Premier’s Award for New Writing (see my review) Daisley’s prose draws both beauty and brutality.  And there is real mastery in the way […]


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