Book Review

Sniper by Pavel Hak

Sniper by Pavel Hak

This is probably the best place to start with Pavel Hak’s chillingly explicit novel:

The index is man’s most important digit. Some raise it (so as to reveal the divine presence above?). Whereas I curl it round the trigger - and what I can reveal within a single squeeze goes far beyond the world’s saints and their revelations! My index writes the history of humanity’s final act, reveals what man has become. (Pg 49)

Novelist and playwright Pavel Hak was born in what was Czechoslovakia in 1962. Exiled in France in 1986, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and soon began writing in French. Sniper is his second novel and his first to be published in English.

The book, rather obviously, is narrated by a lone sniper. His backdrop is an unnamed country - but we don’t have to think that hard when trying to work out which. With our sniper the reader follows a group of fugitives who are forced to flee their village after it is ransacked by an approaching army. This group of men is led by a pathological Commander who has his own, all too brutal, philosophy on how to win the war:

‘What do you think? Murder, rape, summary executions, torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, all these atrocities are part of our strategy. We’re going to exploit every aspect of the war to the hilt: the weapon of starvation decimates the civilian population, rancid hatred sets the country-side aflame, mass explosions complete ethnic cleansing. But don’t forget…’ The commander stares at his officers. ‘…Terror must be organised.’ The officers nod. (Pg 6)

Here then the grim realities of war are dished to us in a frighteningly grim snippet of dialogue. Through his fictional Commander Pavel Hak takes this strategy as far as it can possibly go, the book is saturated with graphic incidents where the Commander and his men have put such a strategy into practice. The book is relentless in its pursuit of the sinister, the sickening and the desolate. It is a book of depraved human actions committed against another; in short it is more than quite shocking:

Coshes, knives, impalement, baseball bats, electric shocks, freezing cold cells, everything will serve our purpose: to smash human rights! And this objective will never be achieved as long as the women aren’t reduced to slavery.” (Pg 8)

This, then, is the subject of the book: how women are used, terrorised, held captive, tortured, raped and sexually abused - the lowest, but most effective, weapon an approaching battalion of solders can use against the poor innocent people it chooses to oppress. It is a messy business set against a weeping backdrop of lost hope and memories swimming in a cesspit of filth that was once their beautiful country. Pavel Hak uses the topographic contours of this land effectively. It makes for a close, unremittingly claustrophobic narrative, in which a terrain is characterised in great detail - all helping to conceal the identity of the lone sniper. It is the perfect landscape for such nefarious chores:

What is a sniper? One who aims true. The desire to kill is a primary urge. Formed in the womb, it flourishes after birth: kill the father! And then condemn me? Why such appropriation? You have to construct a mountain of inhibitions to repress the urge to kill. Kill. Kill.” (Pg 12 )

Sniper is a continuing tumult of fear and dread; an incessant avalanche of misery, rape and death. Sniper is, rather alarmingly, true to life in such situations. A true depiction of war. My only problem with this book is why Pavel Hak bothered to fictionalise it? Why make up a story? Why invent characters? Why give it a narrative? Why give it literary styling? Surely this just serves to belittle and ultimately sensationalise the atrocities that have, and continue to happen throughout the world. Pages 18 and 19, for instance, produce some of the most harrowing and disturbing scenes I have ever read, but it is flawed due to Pavel Hak’s posturing, and is made all the more repugnant knowing that such acts happen on a daily basis in war. As our sniper informs:

Pure violence knows no criteria” (Pg 24)

Although the Commander’s actions are perpetrated under the act of war I suppose Pavel Hak is trying to imply that such primal urges are human conditions that we all possess (hence using the novel - a medium we can all relate to - to reveal his story) and that it only takes a trigger outside of normal social construct for us to begin to act out and enjoy these urges. Or maybe Pavel Hak just wants his prose to shock and disgust? I hope it’s the former and not, in fact, an exercise in attraction, jolting the reader into bookstores on the back of shock and awe hyperbole - although it seems my hopes could be smashed.

There are tender moments of haunting beauty in Sniper such as the numerous accounts of the living Mothers and Fathers desperately trying to find their dead, buried beneath the frozen earth, frenziedly trying to dig with shovels, pick axes and bare hands to no avail. Pavel Hak has created a sterile impenetrable wasteland, where the dead are forgotten, where they are left to be found after the ice has melted, crystallized pictures of hell etched upon their faces, frozen in time beneath a cruel, downtrodden surface.

In Sniper, Pavel Hak has provided the reader with an eye that can zoom into and out from the action - just like that of the sniper looking through his telescopic sight, choosing at will and choosing death. There is no moral judgement or pontificating here, the book speaks for itself - and what it says many will not want to hear. The cruel, disgusting absurdities of war are laid out for all to see, and only the most perverse of human beings could find them entertaining. And although written in a snappy, clever style I feel Pavel Hak could have used his subject differently, infusing it with more understanding and reasoning - a line has definitely been crossed and I’m just not sure if literary fiction is its medium.

-- Reviewed by Lee Rourke on 08/12/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1852428562
ISBN-13: 9781852428563
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Publication Date: 31/03/2005
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 112

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