Book review: GRANTA 125: After the war

By John McCrystal

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'Granta 125: After the war'.
'Granta 125: After the war'.

Literary journals are like a box of chocolates: you never quite know what you're going to get, although in certain cases - notably that of Granta - you can be sure of uniform excellence and rare, unexpected delights.

The theme for this, the 125th incarnation, is After the War. It is taken literally by many of the contributors, creatively reinterpreted by others and ignored, so far as you can tell, by a few.

The piece that opens it, The Rainy Season by Lindsey Hilsum, is a powerful and affecting account of her return to Rwanda, a decade after she found herself the only English-speaking correspondent on the scene as a genocidal civil war erupted. Rwanda after that war is a place of wilful amnesia, where grievances have been papered over.

Hilsum's story stays with you as you proceed through the collection. It provides a cohering thread of pathos even when you're laughing at Romesh Gunesekera's droll but charged Mess (in which the narrator drives a pair of clergymen to visit a Sri Lankan army officer at his post deep in the former heartland of Tamil Tiger country in an attempt to identify him as the perpetrator of war crimes), or at Thomas McGuane's hilarious and poignant Crow Fair (in which a pair of brothers seek to come to terms with their mother's descent into dementia and the skeletons from her closet that are revealed in the process).

One of the consistently marvellous features of Granta is the way in which it mixes fiction and non-fiction without any editorial direction as to which is which. You can read a piece such as Paul Auster's You Remember The Planes or Yiyun Li's From Dream To Dream as fiction or as memoir, and the uncertainty with regards to "the truth" that buffets you as you read is somehow edifying.

The journalism in this issue is superb. Justin Jin's Zone Of Absolute Discomfort, a portfolio of images of life in a Russian Arctic drilling camp, is stark, beautiful and grotesque all at once. Hari Kunzru's Stalkers, an essay on the bizarre phenomenon of "disaster tourism", with particular reference to the growing stream of voyeurs heading to the post-apocalyptic scene of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, is wonderfully written, understated and allusive.

By the time you finish the collection, the phrase After the War has come to mean any one of the many, many ways in which the past shapes and blights the present and the future.

We're reminded that After the War is merely another way of saying "Before the War", and that not all wars are fought between the armed forces of nations and factions.

Some of the most bitter conflicts are those between - or even within - individuals.

GRANTA 125: After the war Ed. By John Freeman (Granta $35).

- NZ Herald

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