Literary fiction, like poetry, is a quixotic and lovely thing. It’s never been an easy sell because the genre is an anti-genre. It’s “This doesn’t fit into another category, so we’ll call it literary.” In some cases, perhaps many, it means it’s a tough read. In other cases, it just means it doesn’t have a typical dramatic story structure, but there’s structure and much to love.
Only the Impassioned by H.C. Turk is all these things. It’s often beautiful, it’s impassioned, and it’s tough to follow. The story revolves around twenty-two-year-old Andrew Bower, a draftee in Germany at the end of the war. The first four chapters detail Germany at the end of the war, rendered brilliantly but also at times surrealistically as if Francis Ford Coppola had outtakes of Apocalypse Now from 1945. Our hero is merely trying to survive while everything falls apart. He’s “Bower” the first four chapters and mostly “Andrew” for the rest of the novel after he’s shot in the chest and tries to recover.
The book starts out on a train: “In a stolen train, eleven men rode to the end of the war. Confiscated by Allied forces, which had penetrated deeply into Germany by April of 1945, the Brechtesmeister passenger train was a string of six cars pulled by a quiet diesel, the sparkless engine an invention of a German mind, the same as the classical symphony and the Third Reich.” The polar opposites of the last sentence, German philosopher Georg Hegel might appreciate. The novel is built in such dualities: life and death, feeling and not feeling, war horrors and natural beauty, and more.
There’s also a back and forth between long scenes heavy with dialogue as the soldiers try to make sense of it all, contrasted with intense action. Andrew enters a liberated death camp where he puts out of his misery a Jew who had been encased in concrete up to his neck, with the man’s wife, Annelisa, at his side. This is contrasted, in flashback, of Andrew’s horrible father who seemed to try to kill him when Andrew was younger.
Once Andrew is shot and realizes he can die, he’s just trying to figure out if he’s alive or dead. So is the reader. Lyrical sections abound, such as the first long italicized one where, “Bower felt that he could see forever, for he viewed sky and foliage and buildings, but no strafing planes, no thudding mortars, no blasting artillery, no soldiers and the raucous, recoiling firearms.” The reader, in essence, just has to go with the flow. Otherwise it’ll become frustrating.
Andrew is nursed by Annelisa, and she takes him to her country of Ilysia, where her father is a Duke. Andrew must get to a hospital if he’s to survive. His time in Ilysia takes up much of the rest of the novel. To tell you more might diminish it, though you can read into Ilysia, “Elysian Fields.” The novel is unusual—a high quotient of symbolism and surrealism. Think of a tone poem with exposition and some action. If you give it patience, you will leave with the sense that life is a dialectic.