Set in World War I, The Absolutist is narrated by Tristan Sadler, a 17-year-old Londoner off to war and feeling, like many other young men, that it’s the right place to be, the right thing to do, an adventure. Like all WWI literature, The Absolutist details the grim ugly reality of The Great War: life in the trenches; the fear, despair and madness of soldiers; and the public pressure to serve. Tristan, however, unlike other WWI narrators, is gay in a society that treats homosexuals the same as conscientious objectors and those who refuse to fight — as criminals, as aberrations deserving punishment, as embarrassments and stains on the family reputation.
Cowardice is a theme running throughout the book. Conscientious objectors were derided by society and branded “feathermen” — cowards who were afraid to fight, which was not always true. For conscientious objectors who were sent to fight anyway, the refusal to fight did not mean they did not serve in other capacities. Often these men were given dangerous non-combatant jobs — such as stretcher bearers, retrieving the dead from no man’s land — which lead to their deaths. An absolutist, on the other hand, was one who not only objected to fighting but refused to participate in the war in any way. These men could be shot for cowardice. But is it cowardly to take a principled stand knowing you will suffer for it? Is it brave to kill and follow orders in order to save yourself from scrutiny by the rest of the pack?
I found the story’s religious undertones to be most interesting. One of the main characters, Will, is the son of a vicar, and several characters question the morality of killing fellow human beings (Germans) who have done you no harm. But what I found of greater interest is that Tristan comes across as both a St. Peter in his denials in one section of the story and as a Judas elsewhere. At the end of the novel, the reader is left to wonder if, like Peter, Tristan deserves forgiveness.
Tristan is a complicated narrator. On one hand, his rough home life and his fruitless search for love make him an object of pity. His experiences at the front are harrowing, and he is one of only 2 from his original troop of 20 to survive the war. On the other hand, his desire to fly under the radar, not to make waves, and a horrifying confession at the end of the book make him somewhat despicable. I have mixed feelings about him –pity and disgust — but how many of us would be different under duress? We like to think we would be brave and stand up for what is right, but would we? One of the passages that stuck with me has to do with an “over-the-top” campaign in which a raw recruit standing ahead of Tristan refuses to go out of the trench. The sadistic and insane Sgt. Clayton orders Tristan to push the soldier up and out.
“I do it. I don’t even think of the consequences of my actions, but between us Clayton and I push the boy to the top of the ladder and there’s nowhere for him to go now but over and he falls on his belly, the possibility of a return to the trench out of the question. I watch as he slithers forward, his boots disappearing from my eye line, and I turn to Clayton, who is staring at me with insanity in his eyes. We look at each other and I think, Look at what we have just done, and then he returns to the side of the lines as Wells orders the rest of us upward and I don’t hesitate now, I climb the ladder and throw myself over and I stand tall, do not lift my rifle but stare at the chaos around me, and think, Here I am, take me now, why don’t you? Shoot me.”
Boyne’s plot and writing are riveting. This is a book that, once you start, you don’t want to put down until you finish. If I were still teaching Western Civ. II, I would offer this book as a resource for WWI, along with All Quiet on the Western Front, the war poets and Peter Weir’s brilliant film Gallipoli.