by Stephanie Sodero
Anatomy of a Soldier tells the story of a British captain injured in Afghanistan. From this compelling starting point, author Harry Parker adds a twist: forty-five objects narrate the story. Though a bestseller this book wasn’t on my radar until Ole B. Jensen, when speaking at Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research, made an off-hand but enthusiastic reference to it as an example of materiality.
I tweaked to it for two reasons.
First, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Mobilities Research, I am focusing on crisis mobilities. How are mobilities carried out in the midst of disruption, such as severe weather events exacerbated by climate change?
Second, I am curious about vital mobilities. That is, the movement of materials that are critical to one’s life chances, such as blood, water and medicine. Informed by science and technology studies, I am interested in following objects to get a sense of what networks and infrastructures are activated and enabled by their movement and, critically, the social-ecological power dynamics at work.
What, I wondered, might a fictional focus on following objects in a conflict setting yield theoretically and methodologically in terms of my work as a mobilities researcher?
By way of the briefest of sketches, Anatomy of a Soldier tells the story of BA5799 (O POS) a soldier in the British Army who loses a leg when he steps on an improvised explosive devise (IED). The first chapter is told from the perspective of a tourniquet. A bag of blood, a drone and a spore of fungus narrate other chapters. For me, it works and I heartedly recommend it (for full book reviews, see Kirkus and The Guardian).
As a social scientist with an interest in materiality, five main take-aways emerge (with effort made to minimize plot spoilers!):
1. De-centring humans
Telling the story from the perspective of objects serves to both de-centre the human characters and to re-focus on the human from a fresh perspective. (Christian House, writing in The Telegraph aptly describes the approach as “literary cubism”). It also serves a practical purpose as BA5799 is unconscious or sedated for much of the book – his being reduced to a medically managed collection of bodily systems. Anatomy of a Soldier is part mystery as the reader deciphers clues to determine what object is narrating each chapter. To view a scene – especially scenes we often hear about through media – from a foreign perspective, helps to see it in a new light. Reading the book felt like watching a muted movie – the absence of human narration allows previously unobserved details to emerge and other details to land with unexpected impact.
2. Porous boundaries
A theme throughout is the permeability of the human body. Earth and debris explode into BA5799’s legs. An intubation tube inhabits his body. Blood from numerous donors circulates in his bloodstream. Even once crisis has passed, friction from his prosthetic leg aggravates his stump. BA5799’s body is disabled and enabled – again and again – by objects. While sociological terms like cyborg and social-technical co-construction are not used, the concepts are emphatically conveyed.
For Parker, using objects allowed him to distance himself from telling of a semi-autobiographical story. For the boy planting an IED, focus on reciting a mantra distracts him from danger and fear. For the surgeon, concentrating on a steady hand diverts him from the fact of amputation. The intubation tube narrates: “They bent all their concentration on you and slowly you were brought back from the edge. You were not whole to them, just a wound to be closed or a level on a screen monitor or a bag of blood to change.” Focusing on the part channels attention, casting the whole into relief.
Though objects enjoy the privileged role of narration, they most often do not outlive the novel. Disposability and impermanence are central. The intubation tube observes “Seven days and four thousand miles after I had been inserted into you…. A nurse picked me up, pushed the foot pedal of the bin and threw me into a yellow surgical waste bag. I was no longer part of you.” After intense and intimate use, backpacks, tourniquets and prosthetic legs are all discarded. Humans do not fare better (though the intense investment in saving BA5799’s life contrasts with the lack of health care access for the average Afghani).
5. Narrative ambiguity
The narrative omniscience of the objects varies. Some know names of specific things and the roles of certain humans. Others don't. Some evoke sympathy in the human characters. Others don’t. Of his process, Parker states: “I set myself rules. The objects don’t have emotion, they can’t speak. … they can only know what someone is thinking if they are touching them. The rules don’t really matter for the reader but they mattered for me as a writer to keep a structure” (The Telegraph). Chris Power, in The Guardian, found “the more you wonder why body armour is more poetic than a running shoe, or why a detonating bomb favours alliteration, the less absorbed in the book you become.” I found it nothing more than a fleeting distraction. However, it points to the difficulty of potentially anthropomorphizing objects in an academic attempt to follow the object. The interface of narration and agency is sticky at best.
Anatomy of Soldier will inflect my approach as I navigate undertaking and presenting my own research, lending me courage to de-centre the human in order to refocus on the human, concentrate on the part in order to reveal the whole and create my own narrative rules in order to get at a larger truth.