Created by: Emanuel Guibert
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596430966 (Amazon)
One of the biggest hurdles of autobiography and memoir is that by virtue of the author’s life not being complete, the character portrayed must be a fiction. The author’s avatar is a fiction because the author, not having a perspective outside himself, has not really the ability to determine plot and direction and who his character actually is or will be. Because a reader is primarily prompted to read biographical non-fiction for its interaction with real life and real events,11Ignoring wholly the more philosophical question of whether there really is such a thing as Real Events. the story loses its most powerful draw by fictionalizing its subject. Removing true character arcing in this manner usually guts the biograph of its luster, turning the youthful memoir into a singular evidence of the author’s arrogance—a twenty-year-old man who tells you where his story is headed is full-up on the kind of hubris that pretends that we are the masters of our destinies’ directions.22I mean, unless he’s just ingested a bucket of arsenic. Then he’s got a pretty good idea when his story will peter out.
Alan’s War, while avoiding this pitfall, provides pretty strong evidence for why autobiography is often foolish. As it is narrated by Alan Cope but edited and compiled and recounted by Emanuel Guibert after Cope’s death, we are greeted with a long-lens view of Cope’s life (even if much of the content comes from Cope himself). As with most all of us, Cope in his teens is different from Cope in his twenties and Cope in his thirties is different from Cope in his forties. And so on throughout his life. Alan’s War collects a handful of completely different Alan Copes. If the book was a Blankets-style memoir penned by a twenty-three-year-old Cope, it’s a sure bet that fifty-year-old Cope would reject it entirely. He understands why he was the person he was but also understands that Young Cope could never have imagined Old Cope.
Cope’s life was built of experiences, and the intimate intercourse with those historical meetings and states and phenomena altered him—as experiences always will. I’m not really any kind of determinist, but it’s easy to see how we are all forged by the moments we survive. I have not become who I am without the things that have happened to and around me. And neither are you.
In my late twenties, on my fourth trip to Europe, I spent several days wandering around Budapest. I stayed in a dive hostel (where I was nearly impaled through the chest with a wooden stake). I met a pod of three young women who were traveling Europe separately on extended vacations from Australia, Britain, and New Zealand respectively. I had been traveling alone and had largely taken in the sights and adventured without sharing any of my experiences with others. Merely polite back-and-forth with other travelers and locals. Yet here in Budapest I made friends with these three.
We had a good time seeing the sights, doing pub crawls, being touristy. Eventually, two had to catch their trains and flights, leaving me and the remainder of the pod a day to take in the city once more, only by ourselves. We had a grand time. Museums, gardens, public baths, dancing, a cellar-level restaurant. I even pooped my pants accidentally (due to the cellar-level restaurant), and that just added to the fantastic spontaneity of the day. It was a colossal experience and one that stays with me even a decade and a half later.33We, like summer camp friends, promised to keep in touch. We exchanged email addresses on the backs of postcards but mine, stuffed in the back pocket of my jeans, was accidentally washed as soon as I got home and her contact info banished to the Oblivion. And one that went totally against my nature as an entrenched introvert.
And that’s part of what makes G.I. Cope’s story so fascinating for me. His entire life during WWII is essentially my few days in Budapest lived over and over, only in hundreds of places with hundreds of people. Cope talks to everybody and makes friends with everybody. He does as he will because the call of adventure is his lodestone. I wish sometimes I could live as Cope does, but I would sadly be in a perpetual state of exhaustion from all that lovely human contact. It is a true thing that later in the day after saying farewell to the final member of the pod, I was drained of all power and was overwhelmed in an uncharacteristic sort of homesickness (which contributed to me cutting short my European adventure by a full week). But Cope, he gets to know everybody and it’s marvelous.
He makes friends with men and women of all nationalities and backgrounds. And because of those friendships, Alan’s War is tremendous for offering a number of perspectives and beliefs and approaches to living. Cope becomes an effervescent and participatory fly on the wall of many families across Europe and gets to see a kind of world that none of his G.I. comrades would ever have known. For that alone Alan’s War would be something of a treasure, but beautifully, the book holds far more bounty.
Now it may be the weaver’s privilege to edit his own history to portray himself in more contemporary terms, but Cope throughout his narration is almost entirely free from prejudice and any of the distasteful bad opinions that we commonly associate with our grandparents’ era. He even goes so far as to express disapproval and bewilderment at his parents’ occasional classist tendencies. The one point on which he represents himself in less than glowing terms is in evaluating his religious beliefs and evolution. In fact, it’s perhaps his relationship to his faith state that most governs the book.
When I said earlier that Cope’s story couldn’t properly be told by stopping at the end of WWII, it was primarily his religious condition I had in mind. The war on the European front (the only piece of the war that Cope saw action in) concludes halfway through the book. This was strange to me, and at first I felt that the second half was just an extremely extended epilogue. After all, it was about Alan’s War, right?—about his involvement in WWII. Why then spend so much ink and sweat on filling in the blanks of the rest of his life? My suspicion is that the book’s title doesn’t actually aim toward describing Cope’s experience of WWII but instead advises the wary reader about something more cosmic going on. Cope as it turns out is participant, victim, belligerent, casualty, strategist, and beneficiary of the internal war within himself with God and religion and the concatenated ideologies of all the world.
Cope begins his story as a faithful if minorly disaffected Christian young man. He is eventually assigned to duty with a chaplain but lets us know he was fine with it because—at that time—he agreed with the beliefs and practice of the minister. Eventually he is so taken with the man that he believes himself called to become a minister himself. Later, after the war, he begins a journey of apostasy, abruptly distancing himself from the church in the midst of one of his seminary classes. His antagonism toward religion only sharpens through time and puts impassable obstacles between himself and a number of his former relationships. Finally, on the outward edge of middle age, his dissatisfaction with theological structures transitions to an existential rejection of most social structures and he comes to something near a whole-life-repurposement. The world system, he decides, has governed and abused him for too long, so he hopes to find a way to win free from that.
That the bulk of the second half of the book directly concerns this journey of enlightenment solidifies the interpretation that this is Cope’s (or Guibert’s) purpose in the book. In the concluding matter, Cope relates a little diversion about stories:
Pygmies have a tradition I like. They gather around a storyteller and yell out topics. For instance, when someone in the group says “Love!” the storyteller responds: “Love? It’s like this.” Or: “Hate? It’s like this.” And then he develops his story. You could call my story: “War? It’s like this.”
I suspect when Cope says “you could call my story…” he’s not speaking to the episode in which he went to Europe as part of an armoured car crew. Instead, he’s talking about his life. His life as a very particular kind of war story. It’s a good story and hits any number of the expected high and low beats. And readers will be able to exult in and live vicariously through a young man who for all his inexperience was something of a man of the world.
Cope’s stories are almost exclusively engaging and worth the time you’ll spend in reading them. And collapsed together into a single volume, they absolutely merit the couple to few hours it will cost to read them in their entirety. Cope’s life presents the reader with numerous points for self-realization and self-examination. It’s a good and thorough work and I enjoyed it immensely. There is now a sequel, How the World Was, that is being billed as a companion. I’ll tackle it in my next review, but as a minor spoiler, I’ll go on record as saying that it is also completely worth the reader’s time. Guibert is a lovely talent and I hope more of his work will arrive on American shores.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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