Julie's Reviews > Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
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Nov 29, 12

bookshelves: best-of-2012, read-2012, south-asia-theme-setting, war-conflict
Read from November 16 to 23, 2012 — I own a copy

“First of all, you can’t fall into hating the people you are killing. Because you’ll carry that hate with you longer than you will the actual killing itself. It is only by the grace of God that you are on one side and your enemy is on the other side. I often think, ‘I could have been born in North Vietnam.’”

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes, August 20, 2010 The Times (London).


Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War launched onto the bestseller lists in 2010, when United States was entrenched in two unpopular wars in ill-understood and seemingly hopeless places: Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither of these wars is comparable to Vietnam in terms of tactical warfare, terrain, volume of casualties and mis-treatment of vets by their fellow citizens, but the cultural divisions at home, the politicizing of the conflicts and the anger and sorrow over the loss of soldiers and civilians remain the same.

Matterhorn tells the Odyssey of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he leads Bravo Company through the jungle near Vietnam’s border with Laos, just beyond the DMZ. The company’s mission is to secure a remote hilltop base: the fictional Matterhorn. This novel is a living thing. It breathes and pulses, it horrifies and heartens. It is a brilliantly written tribute to combat veterans and a searing examination of the fog of war.

Bravo Company becomes a collective Sisyphus, at the mercy of the gods of the Fifth Marine Division. It spins in circles in the jungle, following the quixotic orders of base commanders more concerned with their careers than the lives of the young men in their charge. The soldiers of Bravo Company endure the unbearable: jungle rot, immersion (or trench) foot, man-eating tigers, near-starvation and dehydration, and of course, the horrific results of combat: bullets, grenades, mines and shrapnel cut down the company throughout their journey.

The narrative has many themes: the adventure of battle and the camaraderie of soldiers; the value of a well-trained militia in sharp contrast with inherent unjustifiable nature of war; the racial tension between black soldiers and white that brings the conflicts of home to the battlefields of Vietnam; and the truth of military politics - the power struggles between reserve and regular officers and “lifers” on the ground and with their commanding officers, who adjust casualty numbers and keep up a pretense of victory to look good to their superiors and to the press at home.

Marlantes writes with clarity and authenticity, in a style that is raw, vivid and surprisingly readable. Matterhorn flows with fully-realized characters whom you come to love or revile with ferocity, your heart breaking with each loss. He provides breathtaking detail; the combat scenes are rendered in a minute-by-minute reel and you experience the fear, adrenalin and pain alongside the soldiers.

It took Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and accomplished civilian (Lieutenant, USMC; Rhodes Scholar, Oxford) thirty years to write, rewrite and find a publisher for Matterhorn. Although I would not wish such an arduous journey to publication on any writer, I believe that telling this story now, in a new century, to a generation for which the Vietnam War is an anecdote or a chapter in an American History textbook, benefits the book's readers and its subject.

Among the most precious and devastating aspects of any war are the soldiers’ stories. No one who has not served in combat can understand what a soldier suffers physically and emotionally. For Vietnam veterans, who returned home only to face insults and shunning, the stories remained locked inside. Writers who record their stories speak for the millions who cannot. In 1977, journalist Michael Herr published Dispatches, an account of his experiences in Vietnam in 1967-68 embedded with platoons; Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien offered the beautiful and compelling The Things They Carried in 1990. Twenty years later - and thirty-five years after the end of the war in Vietnam - Karl Marlantes reminds us that the stories of young soldiers in the jungles of Southeast Asia are as devastating and relevant now as they were to a generation once removed - our fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers - who still live with these experiences tormenting their hearts.
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Reading Progress

11/18/2012 page 50
7.0% "Not one of my more productive reading weekends. But I wrote a lot! This one is going to take a while. And crap, here come the library books..."
11/19/2012 page 147
22.0% "Losing myself in the dank, soaked jungles of Vietnam while it pours buckets in the Pacific Northwest"
11/20/2012 page 250
39.0% "This is extraordinary...and heartbreaking." 3 comments
11/22/2012 page 347
54.0% "spent the morning look at Vietnam War documentary footage on YouTube"

Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather You are on a five star roll--good choices!


Julie Right?! Makes me a little nervous ;)


message 3: by Jill (new)

Jill I'm soon going to start a VN-themed book -- The Yellow Bird. I'm always a little leery because I'm old enough to remember the horrors of Vietnam. Your review is intoxicating; if the book lives up to a fraction of your review, it must be a very good book indeed.


Gearóid Amazing review!


Charisse Wonderful review, Julie. This book stayed with me for a long time. Absolutely amazing.


message 6: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie Julie this is the third friend review I've read of this book, and each one is better than the previous. I doubt if the the next will top yours. What a review and what a book! This is not the sort of book I normally read, but I realize now that I must get to it soon.


message 7: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Your review is powerful, as the book must be!


Michael Really fine review. Your characterization of their story as a "collective Sisyphus" was so apt.

The tops my readings from what is still a rather limted range of good books on this war and is among the very best to me of books about any war. The coverage of race relations was pretty unique.

For a nice bit of back story and a view of Marlantes as a human full of heart, check out some of Moyer's interview with him:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a67zvx...


message 9: by Jay (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jay Very nice review, as always. Certainly one of the better novels to come out of the Vietnam War.


message 10: by Sue (new)

Sue Excellent review. I guess I've been avoiding this book -- and some others -- because I also remember so well all those daily news reports of the 60s and, especially, the 70s. Your review has helped me realize I need to read this book.


Julie Jill wrote: "I'm soon going to start a VN-themed book -- The Yellow Bird. I'm always a little leery because I'm old enough to remember the horrors of Vietnam. Your review is intoxicating; if the book lives up ..."

Jill, The Yellow Birds is coming up for me at the library- should have it in a couple of weeks. The reviews are pretty mixed, so I look forward to your take.

I was struck by Marlantes' story-telling skills - his characters are so rich and real. The combat scenes can get tech-heavy, but in a way that lends to the incomprehensibility of that horrible time.


Julie Gary wrote: "Amazing review!"

You're almost done! I look forward to your thoughts. I recall Sebastian Barry's A Long, Long Way when I think of a war-themed novel that moved me as much as this did.


Julie Charisse wrote: "Wonderful review, Julie. This book stayed with me for a long time. Absolutely amazing."

You tipped me over the edge, Charisse. I hadn't seriously considered reading it until I read your comments - thank you. This one will stay with me, too.


Julie Michael wrote: "Really fine review. Your characterization of their story as a "collective Sisyphus" was so apt.

The tops my readings from what is still a rather limted range of good books on this war and is amo..."


Michael- thank you so so much for this extraordinary interview. Such a gentle, thoughtful man.


Julie Michael wrote: "Really fine review. Your characterization of their story as a "collective Sisyphus" was so apt.

The tops my readings from what is still a rather limted range of good books on this war and is amo..."


I just found this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKACQs...


Julie Heather wrote: "Your review is powerful, as the book must be!" Thank you, Heather. It's a very emotional read - it's odd to be caught up in the adventure and the story, while feeling anger and bewilderment because you know this was reality.


Julie Jay wrote: "Very nice review, as always. Certainly one of the better novels to come out of the Vietnam War."

Thank you, Jay. I believe my Vietnam War fiction reading is limited to this and The Things They Carried. I've got The Lotus Eaters on my shelf- can you recommend any others?


Julie Sue wrote: "Excellent review. I guess I've been avoiding this book -- and some others -- because I also remember so well all those daily news reports of the 60s and, especially, the 70s. Your review has helpe..."

Thank you, Sue. My husband spent several weeks in Southeast Asia in 2005 on a Fulbright workshop for history/social studies teachers. He was so moved by Cambodia and Vietnam- the people, their cultures, history, beauty of the land; it struck him immediately that the Vietnamese referred to the war as "The American War". Of course, how obvious, how chilling.

I hope you read this, but know that it will be difficult.


message 19: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I’m with Jill and Sue re: books about Vietnam, having seen enough of the original event on TV every night when I was an impressible tween to last me a lifetime. There was something so relentless about the coverage and it was bewildering, and the older I got and the deeper the conflict , the more I realized the futility, waste and basic immorality involved and then it did make me angry. I’m never anxious to re-visit those feelings. But your review is so good, I may move this one onto my mental “maybe” shelf. Maybe.


Julie Suzanne wrote: "I’m with Jill and Sue re: books about Vietnam, having seen enough of the original event on TV every night when I was an impressible tween to last me a lifetime. There was something so relentless a..."

I respect that "maybe", Suzanne. There are scenes that will make you blind with rage. I began poking around on the internet while I read this and found a couple of recent documentaries about pointless missions that no one will ever have to answer for - missions that slaughtered soliders and civilians alike. It just hurt to see the men who survived so torn apart, forty years later.


message 21: by Jay (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jay Julie wrote: "Jay wrote: "Very nice review, as always. Certainly one of the better novels to come out of the Vietnam War."

Thank you, Jay. I believe my Vietnam War fiction reading is limited to this and The Th..."


This is probably the longest time you have had to wait for a reply. My life became unusually complicated over the last several months but I didn't forget your question. You asked about other books focused Vietnam. Two early ones that impressed me at the time were Neil Sheehan's A Bright and Shining Lie and Wallace Terry's Bloods. I don't know how they have held up, however.


Julie Jay F wrote: "Julie wrote: "Jay wrote: "Very nice review, as always. Certainly one of the better novels to come out of the Vietnam War."

Thank you, Jay. I believe my Vietnam War fiction reading is limited to t..."


Jay, it's just so good to "hear" your voice. I understand how life can throw a wrench, or several, into our spinning wheels. I'm in the midst of a major life change - reading and writing are the constants I can count on in the midst of the chaos.

So, thank you for thinking of me, for remembering my question. I hope all is well.

Warmest wishes,

Julie


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