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Zoe Lambert’s debut collection, The War Tour, places horror and banality in uncomfortable proximity. The title suggests this: if we are not the direct participants or, for the sake of greater moral comfort, the victims in warfare, how do we stand in relation to the horror? As tourists, turning the bloodshed into a photo opportunity? As writers, notebooks and dictaphones poised so we might appropriate the voices of those who were actually there? The book is not designed to offer a settling response to this queasy feeling that we are somehow implicated in the actions that shape Lambert’s narratives.

In her opening story, These Words are No More Than a Story About a Woman on a Bus, Lambert deploys the second person narrative voice – “you” – to place the reader inside the crawling skin of a suited, briefcase-wielding commuter latched onto by an elderly Lithuanian woman, keen to share her memories of her country’s invasion by the Russian army. “You’re not sure what to do with this story,” the narrative tells you. It’s a pertinent observation. The woman’s story does not belong to us – none of these stories does – so what is going on when we take possession of them? Lambert acknowledges that her literary ventriloquism could be interpreted as an unwarranted, even imperialist, intervention. The collection ends with a chapter of Notes, in which Lambert responds to (her own, as much as anyone else’s) concerns that her approach risks being seen in terms of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak‘s objection to the well-meaning idea of “speaking for” the disempowered. The Notes then snake away from the theoretical question to give an illuminating picture of Lambert’s poetics. She considers the notion of appropriating the voices of historical figures by considering the diaries of the imperialist Captain John Hanning Speke and the botanist Charlotte Manning. The diaries serve as fictions – not everything is told or understood by their writers; they remain versions within which Lambert weaves her own imaginings as a writer, experiencing the process as a profound collaboration. If appropriation is taking place, that’s because that’s what writers do. I’ll do it to you if we ever met, and I do it to myself every time I write.

I do, however, find truth in Spivak’s point when reading a story like Road Song, by Joanne Harris, which appears in a 2010 Vintage collection, Because I Am A Girl, for which seven renowned authors spoke to young girls in different continents in order to represent their stories and situations. The proceeds from the collection support the charity, Plan, which aims to support self-empowerment in the developing world so the stories can be accepted as an elegant stump for a worthy cause. However, in a passage like this, set in her character Adjo’s local market, I find the prose Harris constructs less of a vehicle for the young girl’s cultural experience and more a giddy, exotic rickshaw ride for a tourist sensibility:

Adjo likes the market. There are so many things to see there. Young men riding mopeds; women riding pillion. Sellers of manioc and fried plantain. Flatbed trucks bearing timber. Vaudou men selling spells and charms. Dough-ball stands by the roadside. Pancakes and foufou; yams and bananas; mountains of millet and peppers and rice. Fabrics of all colours; sarongs and scarves and dupattas. Bead necklaces, bronze earrings; tins of harissa; bangles; pottery dishes; bottles and gourds; spices and salt; garlands of chillies; cooking pots; brooms; baskets; plastic buckets; knives; Coca-Cola; engine oil and sandals made from plaited grass.

Lambert is not concerned with the thrilling wordiness of her diverse subjects: she is concerned with character. What bothers her, as a short story obsessive, is the problem of collapsing War – that emesis of human struggle, conflict, which shatters life in half a second and hangs onto lives for years and through generations; that pitches your street against mine in the next block along and then follows us across oceans and sets itself up in a new continent – into the tidy sealed boxes we call stories. The collection takes its cue from Trotsky’s assertion that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Though there was a point when I was wondering how many more ways Lambert could find to write the sudden explosion or hail of gunfire that seemed to arrive like a narrative epiphany in a succession of the stories, the collection as a whole examines war – and shows how war examines us – from many more angles than just direct armed conflict.

The characters, conflicts and locations manouevre around one another in the stories. Two stories cross paths on Manchester’s Langworthy Road: in From Kandahar, squaddie Phil returns from a tour of duty, decorated but unable to reconcile his hero’s status with the knowledge he has acquired; in We’ll Meet Again, Rwandan care home assistant Leon leads an ordinary life yet it is one consistently shadowed by genocide. As a Manchester writer, the setting and therefore the stories are available to Lambert; she also allows the reader to detect an autobiographical veracity in the snapshots of the squabbling interrailing couple, Yvonne and James, traipsing around central Europe’s ancient and recent war zones in the title story and Our Backs To The Fort. If Lambert’s city and travel history have Hitchcockian cameos in these stories, it is the level of research, the desire to bring to light hidden, forgotten or sidelined stories of war, and the willingness to showcase her writerly concerns that form the basis of Lambert’s personal hallmark.

The effect can be polemic. There is, in 33 Bullets a welcome if shaming illustration of the conditions in which failed asylum seekers are detained in Britain, and the intractable barriers they face during the appeals process. This would not work if the characters were ciphers for a political argument. As it is, the central character of 33 Bullets, Devrim, is one of the most compelling in the book, an academic of insufficient standing to be considered at risk should he be returned to Iran, desperate to finish and publish a study of the Kurdish poet, Ahmed Arif, in order to demonstrate his credentials:

No-one understood that if his work was accepted by a journal, he might get a book contract, and when he was recognised as an authority on Kurdish literature he might get special dispensation to stay in the UK. ‘With this,’ he said, holding up his work, ‘they won’t deport me!’

Japhet [his cellmate] frowned. ‘Deport,’ he said. ‘They deport you…me… ‘ He gestured around the room. ‘Tout le monde. Est-ce que vous comprendez?’

Ultimately, Devrim finds a purpose in his futile paper-chase, influenced by Japhet’s steely pragmatism. There is a conversation between Arif’s words and Devrim’s attempts to write about them (“Poems are necessary to survival. We all make them out of the words we have.“) and there is a conversation between the words already written and the words Lambert is trying to find to map and make sense of these experiences. It’s a bold writer who works in full acceptance of the inevitable failure of her project, but failure in this case is also the most honorable and necessary response: to completely understand the workings of people’s minds in wartime would demand from us madness or monstrosity. We encounter Japhet again in When The Truck Came, a tense and powerful rites of passage from the schoolboy stumbling into and then through the ranks of a militia to being one of the personal bodyguards of the unit’s leader,’The General’, a figure who will, from this week on, inevitably bring to mind Joseph Kony. Here’s where the gap with full understanding comes in, though. What we now know of Kony exceeds even the sickening demonstrations of nihilism to which Japhet is privy, just as, in From Kandahar, Phil’s existential turbulence couldn’t compete for horror with the latest news of British casualties in Afghanistan. War is interested in you, but it’s more interested in excising the pus from its own scabs, using a rusty nail, than with attending to your emotional bruises. And Lambert is attempting to take on neither Andy McNabb nor Sun Tzu here: as the collection progresses, the observation of how a writer finds points of contact and communication with her subjects becomes increasingly engrossing.

Some of Lambert’s characters offer easy skins into which a contemporary British writer may slip: both Senka, the Serbian narrator of Turbofolk, and Phil, disembarking the bus on Langworthy Road, are every prodigal child returning home after growing to adulthood elsewhere, and having to deal with overbearing relations and hometown ghosts. Without experience of the Balkan conflict, we still can recognise Senka’s response to her mother’s anxiety over the post-war recriminations directed at journalists seen as having supported genocide – journalists like Senka’s seriously ill father:

I really want to lie down, drink some beer, check my email. But I sigh and pick up the print out of the article: ‘Media Warmongers Should Face Prosecution at the ICTY.’

Even more ambitious are the stories based on primary source material from major episodes in the lives of two women who would have been extraordinary figures for their work alone, but are all the more so because each was operating in a male-dominated environment. One of the pioneers of nuclear fission, Lise Meitner, struggles to emerge as a proactive character in Crystal Night, though dynamism and resolve must have been facets of her personality. The period covered by the story, though, is when Meitner, an Austrian Jew in pre-war Berlin, was belatedly forced into exile having, by her own admission, been so wrapped up in the work that she failed to respond to the Nazi regime’s growing menace. Her disconnection as a character has therefore some consistency. More rounded is the characterisation of the German revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, in The Spartacist League. This captures her during the momentary promise of a sweeping social revolution in Germany, following the end of World War One and the removal of the Kaiser, which was brutally put down by the government of erstwhile radicals, the Social Democrats. I confess that my view of this story was tinted by the memory of the theoretical arguments I used to stage when I was studying for my History degree in the 80s. The debates would pit Lenin against Trotsky – and Luxemburg would always win, nipping in with a tract from The Mass Strike, so I felt oddly starstruck to be in her company during the story. Lambert’s methodology – when she wrote what she wrote, this is the scene I see – is clear in this passage, where we can feel history trickling through the cracks in the woodwork:

It is nearly 2a.m. and Rosa is working in the attic room on Friedrichstraße. She is sitting at a large desk with an oil lamp burning beside her. She picks at a plate of cheese and rye bread, which Mathilde bought a few hours ago. She will ironically call the article: ‘Order Prevails In Berlin.’ The tone must be defiant and angry about the Ebert government’s so called victory when even now she can hear gunfire on the street.

The War Tour offers repeated encounters like this, between the intimate bodily experience of war and the remote writer’s imagination about its characters and situations. It is the nature of a themed collection that larger narratives are hinted at. In the short story business, we need a strong cadre of the willing to fight the cause. The novel-writing careers of Ali Smith or Michel Faber are developments I’d only ever praise through gritted teeth. Yet it’s possible to detect in Lambert, despite her dedication to the short form, the novelistic skills of research and organisation of her material that would serve her well should she ever decide to abandon the virtue of concision.

The War Tour by Zoe Lambert is published by Comma Press in paperback and for Kindle.
Reviews of short story collections are a new, occasional feature on Real Time Short Stories. Authors and publishers are invited to get in touch to arrange reviews of new work


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