Marc Dugain
--- Sincerely yours,
[From Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West]

Since reading The Officers' Ward I've been thinking about faces. I mean, they're sort of funny if you think about it ... not funny ha-ha (although that can happen) --- but funny peculiar. The face is more or less Control Headquarters and Identity Central for the body. It's where we put food and drink and thoughts and words and music and air into our bodies. The face seems to be designed to make us forget the astonishing collection of vessels, capillaries, sweat glands, pockets of fat, muscle, ligaments and bone that underlie it. There are some 128 muscles located in and around it --- more than in any other part of the body --- which can be used to register any number of reactions: fright, glee, misery, boredom, joy, woe, interest, happiness, rage ... the emotional works.

When some part of a face gets taken away --- disease, a wound, accident, accident of birth, surgery --- it is catastrophic ... at least in what we laughingly call The West. In the third world, faces with bones protruding, gaping holes, leprosy, hanging wens, wasting disease, discoloration, birth marks, warts, missing chins or eyes are no big deal. Indeed, one of Lawrence Durrell's favorite scenes on the streets of Alexandria is the man he sees almost every day who has no nose: the man has stuck a cork into the orifice so he has a place to perch his glasses.

To see a face that is missing something --- an eye, a nose, part of the mouth --- creates fear and unease, especially in The Land of the Brave. The reason: we are looking at the truth --- the exact complex of bone and gristle and fat and nerve that underlies our own skin. We are literally looking death in the face.

The character in Dugain's novel --- Alan Fournier --- is drafted into the French army at the beginning of WWI to build bridges. But, it isn't to be: the first day of the war he is on a reconnaissance near the front lines and the Germans open fire, hitting him smack-dab in the upper-lip and nose. He spends the next four-and-a-half-years in a Paris hospital, subject to countless operations. The doctor says, "we'll be able to make faces as good as new." He's wrong. Fournier writes cheerful, careful letters home, telling his parents that because of impending surgery --- he doesn't say where --- it would be best if they didn't visit.

Those who were subject to such disfigurement in WWI could expect little help from medicine. The miracles of artful graft, transplant, and facial reconstruction would not be available for another thirty years. Surgical fakery was not possible and one had to live with what was left (or rather, what wasn't left) of the cranium. Thus, patient Fournier stays in the ward most of the time --- and once he leaves, spends most of this time either with his family who ultimately get used to this strange-looking creature, or with his old friends from the ward --- the only ones in the world who will not look at him with

    a mixture of pity, compassion, and embarrassment, people who turn away, saying, "I'm sorry" (to which he responds "There is no need...")

When he tries to get back his pre-war job, the director says (carefully looking away from him) that the company is having a problem with money, and that it would be very difficult... "nothing personal" he says several times, after which, in one of the few angry moments in the book, Fournier relates: "I would have happily stuck my tongue out at him through my nose."

The language of The Officers' Ward is not unlike that of an official report --- flat, using only the simplest of words. It's not an inappropriate style for a narrator who has lost much of what the rest of humankind uses and will continue to use as the first part of the self that we expose to a stranger. Complicating this is the fact that the subtleties of smile or frown or sneer or even boredom is not available to one who has lost his nose and much of his mouth.

It is this passionless language that makes the novel very easy to read but at the same time it makes one uneasy. Has the fire been so banked that Fournier will always be a man of no great moments of joy or sorrow? Since there can be no smile, frown or sneer --- does that means that his emotions have, too, been shut down?

We are never given an exact description of what he looks like --- we cannot picture the face. We know the nose is gone, that he often wears bandages, that he has a slight speech impediment, and that he can "stick his tongue out through his nose." Outside of that, there is little clue to how he appears, which may be appropriate to a first-person narrative from one who has survived such trauma.

"Our detachment impressed everyone," Fournier says at the end. We were taken for wise men." He says of those who suffered the same problem,

    Our little community radiated a self-assurance and a gaiety that became widely known. It only needed two or three of us to attend a first communion or a wedding for the party to be transformed by these men who feared nothing because they had nothing to lose.

He concludes: "we always surprised those who still had their whole mouths to laugh with."

This could be considered as a morality tale on facing the world without a face; a commentary on how superficial appearance --- or lack of it --- can have a visceral effect on others, and a profound effect on relationships (Casual relationships seem to be impossible.) But the story comes to no real conclusion. With the coming of WWII,Fournier and his friends fade away. Such a passive tale, with its passive character, brings a mild wonder, but, alas, no tears.

--- Emanuel Rochester

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