Author: Joseph Heller
Genre: Fiction, War, Satire
Setting: An American air force base in Italy, during the 2nd World War
This is the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the US Air Force based in Italy during the Second World War. The novel narrates the experiences of Yossarian and his fellow airmen, as they go about doing their “duties” while planning to return home.
Catch-22 – The title itself is the book's single biggest contribution to the English language. It describes an impossible situation, a set of paradoxical conditions from which there is no escape. The pilots in the novel need to plead insanity to escape flying any more missions. But their very act of making an insanity plea shows that they are sane and are thus fit to fly more missions. Thus showing that there is no escape.
The narration is pretty weird (probably the reason why it is in most “greatest novels” lists). The story moves in the form of a “jalebi”. One event doesn’t necessarily lead to another. But one incident refers to a previous narrative, sometimes taking it forward, sometimes filling up the backstory and sometimes hanging out as a loose thread to be tied up much later. Overall making it slightly difficult to keep track of the happenings in this non-chronological tale.
There are attempts at humour even in the light of tragedy, making the tragedy even starker. After all, it is a tale of war. There is blood and gore and black humour. As the novel proceeds, it grows grimmer, as we see our characters die one after the other, while also coming face to face with the horrors of war. There is an attempt of the airmen to retain their sanity in light of the goings-on. They question war itself, but carry on with their”duties” while also fighting their own bureaucracy, which at times is an even bigger enemy than the Germans (whom we never see). They are just a bunch of weary men eager to go back home. Nothing sums it up better than the contrast in attitude between Yossarian, a war “veteran” and his roommates who are fresh joinees.
My favorite line from the book – “that men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance”. A reminder to the warmongers the world over – that the soldiers dying in the war are also real people. Especially to those who think that bringing up soldiers dying at the borders is a good analogy for any cause.
One word about Milo Minderbinder and his M&M transportation using fleets of fighter aircraft from both sides. There is war and there is business. Sometimes they go hand in hand. And somebody can run a profitable business empire at the sidelines of a world war as well.
Previously on BookMarks: A Feast for Crows