NZ Arts Festival, Writers & Readers Week
March 15 | Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

BRING to mind Basil Fawlty goose-stepping through his hotel’s dining room as his German guests eat dinner, after issuing his staff with the order, “Don’t mention the war!” he cannot restrain his own verbal and physical blunders.

In terms of experience, I know nothing about war. I am a thirty-something woman who has lived in New Zealand all of her life. My parents’ colleague’s son took part in the Gulf War. I remember it being important enough to detail in my thirteen-year-old’s diary. On my last visit to England I tried to coax my Grandmother into talking about the war. She determinedly held up an open newspaper between us. So I was interested to know what the three award-winning novelists: Ian McEwan, Uwe Timm and C. K. Stead – one English, one German, one a New Zealander – would say about their experiences of war and its place in their writing.

Timm, one of Germany’s most eminent writers, gave an account of post-War Germany’s transformation. He talked about his brother, a soldier in the Waffen SS, whose diary is the basis for his book, In My Brother’s Shadow. Even though I have no grasp of German, Timm’s sincerity and optimism was easily translated.

C. K. Stead talked about war as a normality. New Zealand was at war during his formative years – seven to twelve. When peace was announced he was asked to ring his school bell – keep on ringing they said. He admitted to feeling anxiety – what would peace time be like?

McEwan stated that the English can’t stop mentioning the war. The quip was a precursor to discussion about national stories and the creation of national dialogues that are told and retold in order, as a nation, to make sense of events. Timm noted that both of the other panelists had only written about battles where their ‘side’ had lost. How could you write about victory? he asked.

Kate Camp questioned the panel about the morality involved in writing about war. McEwan and Stead felt there were no moral imperatives different to other topics. Was war a male occupation? McEwan spoke about the idea of war – the passion, the excitement, the testosterone – being inherently appealing to men.

The combination of hearing from three panelists and a translator meant the session was over too quickly, but it left an intriguing impression. The writers were only able to talk briefly about war, and war in their work, but they did so with none of Basil’s hysterics. Timm, when speaking of his brother’s wartime atrocities, said he may have done the same in the same circumstances. Who can know? I was left with the impression that war is an uncertain and grey place – in terms of morality, histories and people. This theme seems central to the retellings of our war stories by these three writers.