“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”