“Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes, A Platoon in Vietnam

“Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes  (2010) – 600 pages

“It was all absurd, without reason or meaning. People who didn’t know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about.”

“Matterhorn” is another of the ten novels shortlisted for the 2012 Intrtnational IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, now 67 years old, spent over thirty-five years writing his novel about the Vietnam War.  After reading this Vietnam novel “Matterhorn”, I can say his time was well spent.   I suspect he has more fully captured what it was like to be in a United States Marine platoon in the jungles of Vietnam during the war than any other writer.

Before “Matterhorn”, two Vietnam War novels have stood out for me.  “Going After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien and “Meditations in Green” by Stephen Wright are  deep, surreal, and allegorical novels about the war.

“Matterhorn” is something different.  Its goal is to capture exactly what it was like to be in Vietnam down to the smallest detail.   The original first draft of the novel that Karl Marlantes wrote was 1800 pages, reduced down to the final version of “Matterhorn” is 600 pages.

The Vietnam War was different from other wars.  Many of the soldiers who fought in the war wore peace symbol necklaces.  The soldiers came to Vietnam from a United States where the hippie subculture, huge protests against the war, and the Black Power movement were occurring.  Drug use was rampant especially among the young.  Many of the young draftees showed up with shoulder length hair which would immediately be sheared much to the shame of the recruits and draftees.  They brought their music with them, and the soundtrack for the war was “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.

“Matterhorn” is especially sensitive to the racial issues that were taking place.  Each platoon had several black soldiers who mostly stayed off by themselves.  This was understandable considering the entire military chain of command was infested with white racists from top to bottom.  The leader of the platoon in “Matterhorn” can see with his own eyes how well some of the black soldiers perform in battle and would like to promote at least one to a leadership position.  This meets resistance on two fronts.  Some of the white racists up the chain of command are opposed to it on racist principle.  Also the black soldier to be promoted doesn’t want the position, because the other blacks in the platoon will see him as an Uncle Tom kowtowing to the whites.

Another strength of “Matterhorn” is the dialogue.  It is apparent that Marlantes spent a lot of care to make sure the soldiers’ jargon and informal speech is correct. You see the strong friendships that develop in the platoon.

As in any good war novel, there are a lot of battle scenes in “Matterhorn”.  One day a Colonel gives orders to the platoon to take that hill, Matterhorn, where the North Vietnamese Army is situated.  Against all odds and with the extreme cost of several soldiers getting killed or severely wounded, the platoon manages to take the hill. The next day the Colonel changes his mind, decides the platoon should leave the hill and locate somewhere else.  I suppose in all wars the military leadership far away from the battlefield has little idea of what is really going on.  Like in any war novel, we get introduced to many colorful characters only to see them get killed or severely wounded later.

While reading “Matterhorn”, you get the sense that Marlantes has empathy for all the imperfect people who make up this imperfect world.

One thing that impressed me about “Matterhorn” was the energy.  Even though these young soldiers are in awful, messed-up circumstances, they are young and in their prime and as long as they are not wounded or killed, they are having the time of their lives.

As a novel, “Matterhorn” at least matches if not surpasses the other Vietnam War novels I’ve read.    It would go on my list as one of the finest war novels of any war.

“This nation should be less worried about putting the Vietnam syndrome behind us than restarting the World War II victory syndrome that resulted in the Vietnam syndrome in the first place.”

-          Karl Marlantes, “What It Is Like to Go to War”

 

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I had almost let Matterhorn slip past. I had intended to read it back in 2010, but didn’t. I am glad you’ve brought it back up. I have read a few Vietnam novels, nothing particularly literary (The Flight of the Intruder, Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, and a couple others whose names I do not remember at the moment). Growing up in a world where Vietnam was the most recent “real” war and making it through my teens and twenties without any protracted military conflicts involving the U.S., I found the Vietnam War fascinating. Part of what intrigues me is that the novel brings a very realistic take to the subject, rather than an allegorical or fantastic or myth-making approach. I am also impressed with the long-term dedication and care Marlantes took in writing the thing. You are not the first of my trusted bibliophiles to praise the result of his decades long quest for the best book he could write on the subject.

    I am looking forward to it again. Its IMPAC nomination is a great reason to put it back on the TBR and give it priority. Thanks.

    Reply

  2. Kerry,
    Yes, “Matterhorn” is the intense realistic Vietnam novel rather than allegorical or surreal. Matlantes was an Ivy League graduate who volunteered for the Marines, and I suspect that the story of Mellas, the platoon leader, is Marlantes’ own story. Because the novel is so detailed and realistic, it probably will become an important historical document of the Vietnam War.
    It’s good that “Matterhorn” got shortlisted, because it is easy to pass over a 600-page novel.

    Reply

  3. I’ve read no Vietnam War books. It’s a bit strange, but somehow I’ve never come across one that called to me. Matterhorn, however, has been politely waiting for me since the first reviews came out. I hope to grab a copy at the first opportunity that presents itself – your review has strengthened this resolve even more.

    Reply

    • Hi Biblibio,
      In “Matterhorn” there is a platoon leader Mellas who I’m quite sure Marlantes based on himself. The difference between “Matterhorn” and many other war novels is that many war novels try too hard to make some propaganda, political, or moral point, while Marlantes’ goal seems to be to only tell exactly what the Vietnam War was like for the people who fought it.

      Reply

  4. Posted by neighbors73 on May 20, 2012 at 3:53 am

    I just finished Matterhorn myself. I thought it was brilliant. I thought It would feel too long, but it really pulled me in. Great review!

    Reply

    • Hi neighbors73,
      Thank you for the kind words. Yes, for a 600 page novel, Matterhorn speeds right along. Marlantes really captures what it must have been like to be in a fighting platoon im Vietnam.

      Reply

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