Poet Edward Estlin Cummings, also known as E. E. Cummings, or e e
cummings, after his poetic writing style in lower case letters, sometimes without punctuation, was also an artist, essayist, and author of four plays and
two autobiographical works, of which this is one. It is fortunate that the man had a bizarre sense of humor and was able to express the absurdity of the
situation thus, otherwise this would have been a ghastly and horrifying book to read. Even with the humor, it was still pretty appalling.
In 1917, during WWI, Cummings volunteered to be a Red Cross ambulance driver in France. There he met William Slater Brown, who became "B." in the story. Neither of them liked the American leaders running the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, and preferred the company of French soldiers. Through some letters written by Brown criticizing the war, both were arrested for suspicion of espionage, and sent to the concentration camp, La Ferté-Macé. The conditions which these two innocent young men had to endure by the French government—to whom they had volunteered their services—was inexcusable. In fact, a good many of the other prisoners were most likely innocent, too. The concentration camp was a temporary stop until the fate of the prisoners was decided. Shortly before Cummings was released, (due to Cumming's father writing to President Woodrow Wilson), Brown was sent to the permanent prison. He was released two months later.
Both Brown and Cummings spent three-and-a-half months in the hole from Hell. During that period, Cummings's parents were not even given truthful information of his whereabouts, and at one point, they were told he was dead, in fact they were basically lied to by the French government, (we were on their side, remember), throughout the whole ordeal. The Dover edition has reprinted copies of Cummings's father's letters pleading for help from various authorities.
At first Cummings seems to treat the whole thing as a joke; sarcasm and satire abound, but about halfway through the book, his opinions of the officials holding him captive become scathing and bitter. The conditions in which they were forced to live were in crowded filth—at one time sixty men were crammed into The Enormous Room, which was no where near enormous enough to house that many people. Their toilet facilities consisted of several buckets, which were all overflowing by the time they could be emptied. Their weekly shower was ice cold water and a towel the size of a napkin. Meals consisted of greasy water. Cummings managed to escape with only a skin disease, but Brown's condition (scurvy) was much worse. It really doesn't matter whose side one is on during a war, it is all evil and inhumane.
When Cummings and his friend were arrested, they got separated, but upon entering The Enormous Room, he found B. had arrived shortly before him. He was admitted in the dark, unaware of how many other were also in the room. He heard all different languages—French, Dutch, Polish, English—and soon realized that a bucket of urine was overflowing close to where he had laid his mattress.
There is very little plot here. the story is more of a series of scenes and character sketches. Cummings had a unique and descriptive name for each of the characters, by which they were recognized throughout the story. Some he loved and some he hated with a passion, mostly the ones keeping him captive, but also some really wretched prisoners, too. Those passions grew stronger as time wore on.
Incidentally, there were women housed here, too, quite a few prostitutes, but some wives of prisoners who chose to come there on their own to be with their husbands. Fraternizing with the opposite sex was strictly forbidden, (except for married couples) and those caught would be punished in an extremely cruel manner—being locked up in a cold basement cell, with no light and usually standing water. And this was twentieth-century France!! It sounds more like Medieval times. Truly, after reading this book, one will never quite feel the same about the French government.
Cummings's poetic talent shines in this prose work, because his descriptions of people and events have an absurd, even surreal, but poetic quality, like someone stuck in a horrid and ridiculous nightmare, playing along because one knows it can't be real. Of the Belgian, Monsieur Pet-airs, he says:
From time to time Monsieur Pet-airs remarked something delicately and pettishly in a gentle and weak voice. His adam's-apple, at such moments, jumped about in a longish slack wrinkled skinny neck which was like the neck of a turkey. To this turkey the approach of Thanksgiving inspired dread. From time to time M. Pet-airs looked about him sideways as if he expected to see a hatchet. His hands were claws, kind, awkward and nervous. They twitched. The bony and wrinkled things looked as if they would like to close quickly upon a throat.
Probably the most hated person there, at least by Cummings, was Monsieur le Directeur, whom he referred to as Apollyon (angel of the Abyss) fiend, demon, and His Majesty King Satan. We get it.
And I once saw a little girl eleven years old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops, spilling most of it on her feet; and seize it in a clutch of frail child's fingers, and stagger, sobbing and shaking, past the fiend—one hand held over her contorted face to shield her from the Awful Thing of Things—to the head of the stairs, where she collapsed, and was half-carried, half-dragged by one of the older ones to the floor below while another older one picked up her pail and lugged this and her own hurriedly downward.
And in one of the more humorous moments, one night when everyone wished to sleep except for two who continued speaking loudly and annoyingly, after numerous attempts to shut them up, the others decided to be as noisy as possible:
Steadily the racket bulged in the darkness. Human cries, quips and profanity had now given place to wholly inspired imitations of various, not to say sundry animals. Afrique exclaimed—with great pleasure I recognized his voice through the impenetrable gloom:
--perhaps, said I, he means a machine gun; it sounds like either that or a monkey. The Wanderer crowed beautifully. Monsieur Auguste's bosom friend le Cordonnier, uttered an astonishing:
which provoked a tornado of laughter and some applause. Mooings, chirpings, cacklings—there was a superb hen—neighings, he-hawing, roarings, bleatings, growlings, quackings, peepings, screamings, bellowings, and something else, of course—set The Enormous Room suddenly and entirely alive.
This is by no means an easy book to read. There is way too much written in French for the average reader, although much can be figured out by its context. But what makes it more difficult is that it is—well, it's just horrible, to think that prisoners, especially those that were guilty of nothing whatsoever—would be treated in such a cruel manner and have to live under such filthy and disgusting conditions. But it certainly paints a picture of war that doesn't show up in the history books, but should, especially for the fools that think war is so heroic and honorable.
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