In a beautifully designed issue devoted to the war in Iraq, The Virginia Quarterly Review makes a compelling case for why literature matters. The editor’s note, “The Dreadful Details: The Problem of Depicting War,” addresses the history of representing war’s carnage in photographs and the writing of witness, taking the position that “We must continue the painful work of bearing witness for posterity, of looking with the camera’s unblinking stare at the horrors of humankind.”
Three photographic essays on the war, by Carolyn Cole, Ashley Gilbertson, and Chris Hondros, do just this, bringing Iraq to life in tense, heartbreaking and chilling moments. An aerial shot of detainees lying face-down on the ground, wrists bound behind their backs; normal Baghdad street life captured through a Humvee window; a U.S. soldier guarding a street minutes before being killed by an IED – these images join the stories of the photographers who risked their lives to record them to tell a complex story of heroism, complicity and suffering not found in mainstream newspapers or on mainstream networks.
Complementing these photoessays is a special feature on Jirí Orten, a Czech poet who died in Nazi-occupied Prague at the age of twenty-two when a hospital refused him admittance because he was Jewish. An essay by Edward Hirsch introduces translations of Orten’s work by Lyn Coffin and Zdenka Brodska. One of the most affecting is a list entitled “What Is Prohibited,” taken from Orten’s notebooks. “I’m not allowed to go to parks or orchards,” he writes. “I’m not allowed to go to the city woods. / I’m not allowed to travel outside of Prague. / I’m not allowed (therefore) to go home.”
Human suffering is addressed more obliquely in Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Chilean Girls,” about two poor Peruvian girls who bewitch their Lima neighborhood by pretending to be Chilean. This expertly-rendered coming-of-age story proves that fiction can depict human cruelty, disillusionment, and subjugation as penetratingly as can nonfiction.
The editor’s note concludes, “Harder still [than bearing witness], we must condemn much of what we see in the world even as we resolve to live in it and love it anyway.” VQR’s editors have managed this difficult task with power and humanity.