May 10, 12
Read in May, 2012
I already knew from reading The Gabriel Club that Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya doesn’t just tell a story: he puts you at the heart of it and opens your senses to its pulsating life. So that’s what I was looking for when I read The Watch, and that’s what I got. But I hadn’t anticipated that the life it opened to would be quite so devastating. I knew by the description that the story takes place in war torn Afghanistan, so I expected it to disturb: war stories do disturb. But Roy-Bhattacharya’s unfolding sequence of distinct narrative voices pulsates the life of an American military outpost in the Afghan desert in a way that changes consciousness in the reader. Unless you’ve been there yourself, whatever you thought you knew about the Afghan war vanishes.
This happens because you live the war from inside the consciousness of seven different narrators. This doesn’t mean just getting varied perspectives on a single event, multiple angles that require piecing together to form a complete picture. Rather, narrator after narrator, you come to feel what each feels. That’s the disturbance: no authorial voice tells you what you are supposed to think. Neither does any single narrator sound more reliable than the next. You may feel a greater affinity with some characters than with others, but you still know that every one of them is telling his or her own pure truth. What makes this devastating is the constant reassessments of the situation that each character keeps making yet cannot match up with their real time perceptions: constant and precise yet still uncertain reassessments by the soldiers, by the commanding officer, by the medic, the translator, the lieutenant. And by the strange burqa-clad figure whose arrival a day after a bloody firefight sets the already strung-out military company even more on edge.
In this tense stand-off, what the reader gets from each narrator is inevitably partial, differently so for every voice, human in its limitations, stripped of societal pretense: voices spontaneous as expletives or unbidden prayers. Hearing these voices, seeing through these eyes, feeling through these senses, the reader discovers that what might before have seemed good enough for rationalizing the Afghan war no longer feels tolerable: there can be no justification for any of these people, regardless of allegiances, to simply get wasted.
To read The Watch is to witness unraveling of justified warfare, when those who live the reality of it find it to be not so much a noble cause as a desperate struggle to survive. The storyline is simple and the action brief: in The Watch, every voice becomes the title character, suspended in that immanence, tensed by hair trigger uncertainty about what will happen next. By living in the mind of each narrator, you realize that on the deepest human level, you yourself could be any of them, and you want every one of them to survive. The futility of war as a tool for solving human problems could not be made more palpable. This moving book makes real not only what it means for human lives to be sacrificed in war, but also why such wanton sacrifice must end.