Some novels change the way you see the world. Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, The Illuminations (Faber & Faber), has made me see modern warfare in a new light. The connections he draws between gaming and being a soldier on the ground – in this case, in Helmand – go deeper than merely highlighting how virtual violence can engender the real thing. The novel starts out as an affecting insight into an aged photographer’s mind on the cusp of dementia, before opening up into an examination of the psychology of modern soldiers: thrill-seeking by soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan is shown to have direct parallels with the thrills found by fans – or should that be addicts? – of Call of Duty and other video games. Thanks to the relationship between the elderly photographer, Anne Quirk, and her grandson, Captain Luke Campbell, we see the tenderness in a hard soldier’s heart. The characterisation is just wonderful, not just of these two protagonists, but of some of Luke’s men. They are so young, and themselves so tender. Some are idealistic. Some are patriotic. Few know what they are letting themselves in for, but they want it anyway. Stuck in a convoy in the searing heat – ‘heat inside heat’ – they are restless; they want some of the action they get from their Xboxes.
‘”Jesus,’ whispers Dooley, one of the soldiers, ‘”I wish something would happen. I want to be all over this map. I want a whole lot of kills and then I don’t give a fuck what happens.’
One night, Luke is watching his men in the camp. It’s hot and it’s dark and they are smoking a spliff. ‘Luke just watched them. Scullion was right. Young soldiers often thought they knew the battleground; they saw graphics, screens, solid cover and fuck-off guns you could swap. It wasn’t all they saw but it was part of their understanding. They saw cheats and levels, badass motherfuckers, kill death ratios, and the kinds of marksman who jump up after they’re dead. Luke knew they all struggled, from time to time, to find the British army as interesting as its international gaming equivalent….
‘The boys wanted action. They wanted something real that would become the highest level, the one they couldn’t reach on their consoles back home.’
O’Hagan conjures, for me, the pity of war, and its psychological complexities. I sympathise with Luke’s men – and with all soldiers – in a way I could not have imagined myself doing before reading ‘The Illuminations.’
But the last word should go to O’Hagan’s portrayal of Anne, who lives in a care home in Scotland. Maureen, her neighbour, is only now coming to know of the elderly lady’s achievements as a famous documentary photographer. As she loses her mind, fact and fiction blur. She is like a photographic print at the moment of coming into being in a tray of chemicals in the dark room. ‘Anne was fading away and becoming known at the same time…’ It is an image that lingers in the mind, as does the whole novel. Add it to your list of summer reads for 2016.