I didn’t really like Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller and number 13 on the BBC book list. I’m not saying it isn’t a likeable book or that you shouldn’t read it or that others won’t enjoy it, but I did not. I’m not sure exactly why, because it is funny and well written. But I also found it to be somewhat dirty and boring. I almost didn’t finish it, but when I expressed this to my husband, he reminded me that it was on the BBC book list that I am reading for this blog, so I had to finish. I’m glad I did because it was my third attempt at reading it, and I really did not want to try again. Now it’s done!
The main character, if there is one, is Yossarian, a pilot for the United States during WWII, who is stationed in Italy. He does all he can to avoid flying missions, the number of which is always raised before the men can actually go home. He spends most of his time in the hospital, feigning illness and causing problems. His greatest fear is that somebody is trying to kill him, and that’s because they are; he’s at war. Everybody is trying to kill everybody. Hilarity ensues when the whore of his dead friend begins stalking him. She finds him at every turn, since he was the one to break the bad news of death to her, and tries to stab him. It gives a comic and exaggerated life to Yossarian’s paranoia.
The idea that somebody is trying to kill him (and everybody at war) is the premise of the book and informs the insanity that abounds, especially among military leaders. Heller uses the situations to poke fun at the military leaders and their logic. The book is a satire of hierarchy, politics, war, and the military.
One of the major themes is that of plum tomatoes. They turn out to be a major part of the “plot,” but I’m still not sure what they mean. Does anybody know?
Now, I may not have enjoyed the book because I was watching the HBO series Band of Brothers (starring Damian Lewis!) at the same time. It is about one of the first paratrooper units, Easy Company, to land in France on D-Day. They made their way across Europe, to the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. It is a fascinating tribute to the men who fought in that company, especially Captain Richard Winters. Because of the miniseries, I plan to read the book and Winters’s memoirs. These men were heroic, and the miniseries portrays their sacrifices as important, worthy, moving, and vital. The music and cinematography contributed to this, of course, but patriotism filled me when I watched this series and when I learned of Easy Company’s qualities and experiences, for which I’m grateful.
So to then read the satire of Catch-22 and to see some of that downplayed and made fun of just struck me the wrong way. Of course, humor is meant as a way of dealing with that which is too terrible to face. I understand how important that is and how sadness underlies a lot of humor. But I preferred Band of Brothers as an interpretation of WWII rather than Catch-22. There is room for both, but I’m more sentimental and emotional.