The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers
by Delia Falconer
A Reputation Restored
A review by Gerry Donaghy
Unfolding over the course of a single morning, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is a meditation on memory and the passage of time. But it's not as ponderous or dense as classics in this vein written by Proust, Joyce or Robert Musil. In the novel, Frederick Benteen, a retired cavalry officer and famous in American history as a survivor of the Little Big Horn disaster, reflects on his life, the events leading up to that fateful moment, and its aftermath. His ruminations are set forth after receiving a letter from a young amateur historian who wants to set the record straight about Benteen's role in Custer's strategic fiasco. What transpires is one man's act of reclaiming memories and identities lost to the shifting fortunes of time.
There is poetic depth here that transcends the brevity of the page count. The lack of a focused narrative trajectory is offset by sublime insights into both the human condition and the inhuman experiences of a soldier. The fragmentary and elusive nature of memory is reflected at every turn, making for a kaleidoscopic reading experience that leaves the reader enlightened but never exhausted. Whether recounting in elegiac terms the boyish innocence of the soldiers, the vulgarity of what is presented as humor in the company of men, or the brutality of the battlefield, Falconer creates achingly trenchant moments that blur into one another with the effect of a fever dream.
As I read The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, I was struck by the notion of how much work must have gone into each sentence. There isn't a wasted moment anywhere, and I imagine there are legions of writers who would give their right arm to be able to express in a page what Falconer manages to do in a single phrase or turn of expression. Early in the book, she writes: "His mind also wanders. His life a set of dark rooms which he moves through. Some things he remembers, others he seems to have imagined." The economy of Falconer's prose is breathtaking, introducing us succinctly to the subjective memory of our protagonist. Stripped of superfluous flourish, yet vigorously evocative, Falconer delivers motifs and messages with tactical precision.
Near the end of the book, Falconer writes:
He wanted to write the lost thoughts of soldiers.
In the real world, Custer went out in what was perceived as a blaze of glory, while Benteen faded away, slowly destroying his career and his health through chronic alcoholism. In The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, he manages to rescue not only his humanity, but the memories of his fallen comrades from the dustbin of history, something best accomplished in fiction.
Not the grand heavy story, he has never known his life that way, but the seams and spaces in between. This is history too, he thinks, the weight of gathered thoughts, the cumulus of idle moments.