Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes, 2011
This bestselling, and some would say definitive Vietnam novel has garnered remarkable praise since its release (“I was living and dying in Vietnam with Bravo Company” – The Times) and was written by a man who was himself stationed in Vietnam during the conflict.
The work is the breathless story of 180 marines and their fire support base Matterhorn (aff) – an artillery fortress carved out of the mountain jungle on the outer reaches of US outposts. Ordered to descend from the relative safety of their lair to pursue a North Vietnamese unit of unknown size, Matterhorn details the hellish journey the marines endure, suffering leeches, starvation, an unknown and unseen enemy and all the clichéd divisions of the Vietnam unit – two-faced officers, squabbles over command and racial tension.
It took Marlantes many years to write this book and yet perhaps even more than some works of non-fiction the prose drags you kicking and screaming through the simply awful battle and field conditions endured by US troops in Vietnam . It’s interesting that while many former soldiers simply told their story as it happened to them, Marlantes, a veteran, has opted for the field of fiction to convey his undoubtedly brilliant story.
Matterhorn (aff) is no doubt an ambitious work, filled with tiny details about operating within a military unit, and the environment and conditions are sketched exhaustively. There are plenty of characters to deal with but Marlantes pulls it all off in a terrific work which reveals the strongest imperative for soldiers in Vietnam was not honour or courage but actually just trying to survive. It’s a brilliant war novel.
Note – for a fascinating insight into Karl Marlantes struggle firstly to write this novel and then get it published check out this link to the Guardian newspaper (UK): Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Matterhorn review redux – October 2012
(Note – I felt I never really did justice to Matterhorn the first time around. I reread it recently and had the time to dive into it a lot more. Here’s my review – TC)
Want to know what it was really like for combat Marines in Vietnam ? Read this book – it will drag you into the thick of it, kicking and screaming, and I mean that seriously. You’ll get totally intimate with a company of grunts as they fight through jungle, enemy units, murderously ambitious senior officers and, ultimately, themselves in this blood-drenched tale of war and insanity.
This read is not for the faint-hearted – I say that not so much for the material (we expect blood, swearing and death in war books), but for the brutal, nailbiting authenticity rendered through the masterful and merciless narrative. I promise you, you will be out there walking point with the troops, sweating with fear, twitching for the ambush, retching at the carnage, deafened by the noise, attacked by leeches and jungle rot….Marlantes spares you nothing and with remarkable skill describes every shocking detail of life for the condemned grunt infantrymen.
40 years in the making, Karl Marlantes’ magnum opus blends his own real-life experiences as a Marine officer with a stunning craft as a novelist. That Matterhorn finally made it into print is in itself a miracle: literally decades of authorial self doubt, re-drafting, publishing negotiations and mini-crises form a part of the history of this total-immersion-experience of a book.
I struggle to think of a book where the writer has translated quite so much of themselves – heart, soul, body and bitter experience – onto the pages. Much of the material in Matterhorn has its genesis in Marlantes’ own harrowing experiences as a combat lieutenant. (How do I know this? A lot of the material used for the plot is revealed in the author’s other Vietnam work, the outstanding What It Is Like To Go To War. I’d recommend it as a companion piece to Matterhorn, but read Matterhorn first.)
In and around a cloud-enshrouded firebase close to the DMZ, Bravo Company find themselves pawns in a deadly game of death. Prey to the ambitions of bloodthirsty promotion-hunting brass, this group of incredibly young soldiers endure barbarous living conditions, fierce fighting, mind-shredding fear and scarring trauma. The burning hatred of racial division and constant physical danger mark the days of these young men as they walk every second in the shadow of death.
The reading experience of this novel is totally seamless…often I forgot what I had in my hands was actually a physical book written by somebody…the quality I found I can only describe as film-like. The compulsive story drives on and on – if Hollywood were still making movies on Vietnam, Matterhorn would provide the perfect material.
Marlantes takes us effortlessly between the inner workings of each character, revealing fears, drives, ambitions and terrors, all the while never detracting from a cracking, pacey narrative. Within these pages the action will make you gasp with shock – I say once again, you should expect no mercy from Matterhorn .
Marlantes expertly explores the plethora of drives, personalities and institutions that made up the framework of life and death for US troops in Nam. We come across ruthless officers, willing to sacrifice marines in the hope of ‘looking good’ for battalion. There’s also plenty of material on the groups within groups that make up the company, with special emphasis on the ‘chucks’ and ‘splibs’ – the white versus black soldiers and the fiery, often murderous racial factions that form up in between firefights with ‘the real enemy’, the NVA.
Then there’s the main character, Lieutenant Mellas, surely a literary representation of Marlantes himself. We see the whole journey of Mellas unfold, from green newby to battle-hardened veteran and witness all his doubts, fears and meditations on honour, death and the pointlessness of war.
No book on war ever written could match the intensity, authenticity and atmosphere created by Karl Marlantes in Matterhorn . You will not be the same after reading this wrenching, compulsive book.