Read an Excerpt
By J. G. Ballard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1990 J. G. Ballard
All rights reserved.
Ryan's dream of a cease-fire first came to him during the battle for the Beirut Hilton. At the time he was scarcely aware of the strange vision of a city at peace that had slipped uninvited into a corner of his head. All day the battle had moved from floor to floor of the ruined hotel, and Ryan had been too busy defending the barricade of restaurant tables in the mezzanine to think of anything else. By the end, when Arkady and Mikhail crept forward to silence the last Royalist sniper in the atrium, Ryan stood up and gave them covering fire, praying all the while for his sister Louisa, who was fighting in another unit of the Christian militia.
Then the firing ceased, and Captain Gomez signalled Ryan to make his way down the staircase to the reception area. Ryan watched the dust falling through the roof of the atrium fifteen floors above him. Illuminated by the sunlight, the pulverised cement formed a fleeting halo that cascaded towards the replica of a tropical island in the centre of the atrium. The miniature lagoon was filled with rubble, but a few tamarinds and exotic ferns survived among the furniture thrown down from the upper balconies. For a moment this derelict paradise was lit by the dust, like a stage set miraculously preserved in the debris of a bombed theatre. Ryan gazed at the fading halo, thinking that one day, perhaps, all the dust of Beirut would descend like the dove, and at last silence the guns.
But the halo served a more practical purpose. As Ryan followed Captain Gomez down the staircase he saw the two enemy militia men scrambling across the floor of the lagoon, their wet uniforms clearly visible against the chalky cement. Then he and Gomez were firing at the trapped soldiers, shredding the tamarinds into matchwood long after the two youths lay bloodily together in the shallow water. Possibly they had been trying to surrender, but the newsreels of Royalist atrocities shown on television the previous evening put paid to that hope. Like the other young fighters, Ryan killed with a will.
Even so, as after all the battles in Beirut that summer, Ryan felt dazed and numbed when it was over. He could almost believe that he too had died. The other members of his platoon were propping the five bodies against the reception counter, where they could be photographed for the propaganda leaflets to be scattered over the Royalist strongholds in South Beirut. Trying to focus his eyes, Ryan stared at the roof of the atrium, where the last wisps of dust were still falling from the steel girders.
"Ryan! What is it?" Dr Edwards, the United Nations medical observer, took Ryan's arm and tried to steady him. "Did you see someone move up there?"
"No – there's nothing. I'm okay, doctor. There was a strange light ..."
"Probably one of those new phosphorus shells the Royalists are using. A fiendish weapon, we're hoping to get them banned."
With a grimace of anger, Dr Edwards put on his battered UN helmet. Ryan was glad to see this brave, if slightly naïve man, in some ways more like an earnest young priest than a doctor, who spent as much time in the Beirut front line as any of the combatants. Dr Edwards could easily have returned to his comfortable New England practice, but he chose to devote himself to the men and women dying in a forgotten civil war half a world away. The seventeen-year-old Ryan had struck up a close friendship with Dr Edwards, and brought to him all his worries about his sister and aunt, and even his one-sided passion for Lieutenant Valentina, the strong-willed commander of the Christian guard-post at the telephone exchange.
Dr Edwards was always caring and sympathetic, and Ryan often exploited the physician's good nature, milking him for advance news of any shift in military alliances which the UN peace-keeping force had detected. Sometimes Ryan worried that Dr Edwards had spent too long in Beirut. He had become curiously addicted to the violence and death, as if tending the wounded and dying satisfied some defeatist strain in his character.
"Let's have a look at the poor devils." He led Ryan towards the soldiers propped against the reception counter, their weapons and personal letters arranged at their feet in a grim tableau. "With any luck, we'll find their next of kin."
Ryan pushed past Captain Gomez, who was muttering over his uncooperative camera. He knelt beside the youngest of the dead soldiers, a teenager with dark eyes and cherubic face, wearing the bulky camouflage jacket of the International Brigade.
"Angel ...? Angel Porrua ...?" Ryan touched the spongy cheeks of the fifteen-year-old Spaniard, with whom he often went swimming at the beaches of East Beirut. Only the previous Sunday they had rigged a makeshift sail on an abandoned dory and cruised half a mile up the coast before being turned back by the UN naval patrol. He realised that he had last seen Angel scrambling through the waterlogged debris of the artificial lagoon in the atrium. Perhaps he had recognised Ryan on the mezzanine staircase, and had been trying to surrender as he and Captain Gomez opened fire.
"Ryan?" Dr Edwards squatted beside him. "Do you know him?"
"Angel Porrua – but he's in the Brigade, doctor. They're on our side."
"Not any more." Clumsily, Dr Edwards pressed Ryan's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "Last night they did a deal with the Royalists. I'm sorry – they've been guilty of real treachery."
"No, Angel was on our side ..."
Ryan stood up and left the group of soldiers sharing a six-pack of beer. He stepped through the dust and rubble to the ornamental island in the centre of the atrium. The bullet-riddled tamarinds still clung to their rockery, and Ryan hoped that they would survive until the first of the winter rains fell through the roof. He looked back at the Royalist dead, sitting like neglected guests who had expired at the reception counter of this hotel, weapons beside them.
But what if the living were to lay down their weapons? Suppose that all over Beirut the rival soldiers were to place their rifles at their feet, along with their identity tags and the photographs of their sisters and sweethearts, each a modest shrine to a cease-fire?
* * *
A cease-fire? The phrase scarcely existed in Beirut's vocabulary, Ryan reflected, as he sat in the rear of Captain Gomez's jeep on the return to the Christian sector of the city. Around them stretched the endless vistas of shattered apartment houses and bombed-out office buildings. Many of the stores had been converted into strongpoints, their steel grilles plastered with slogans and posters, crude photographs of murdered women and children.
During the original civil war, thirty years earlier, more than half a million people had lived in Beirut. His own grandparents had been among them, some of the many Americans who had resigned their teaching posts at the schools and university to fight with the beleaguered Christian militia. From all over the world volunteers had been drawn to Beirut, mercenaries and idealists, religious fanatics and out-of-work bodyguards, who fought and died for one or another of the rival factions.
Deep in their bunkers below the rubble they even managed to marry and raise their families. Ryan's parents had been in their teens when they were murdered during the notorious Airport Massacre – in one of the worst of many atrocities, the Nationalist militia had executed their prisoners after promising them safe passage to Cyprus. Only the kindness of an Indian soldier in the UN force had saved Ryan's life – he had found the baby boy and his sister in an abandoned apartment building, and then tracked down their adolescent aunt.
However tragic, Beirut had been worth fighting for, a city with street markets, stores and restaurants. There were churches and mosques filled with real congregations, not heaps of roof-tiles under an open sky. Now the civilian population had gone, leaving a few thousand armed combatants and their families hiding in the ruins. They were fed and supplied by the UN peace-keeping force, who turned a blind eye to the clandestine shipments of arms and ammunition, for fear of favouring one or another side in the conflict.
So a futile war dragged on, so pointless that the world's news media had long since lost interest. Sometimes, in a ruined basement, Ryan came across a tattered copy of Time or Paris Match, filled with photographs of street-fighting and graphic reports on the agony of Beirut, a city then at the centre of the world's concern. Now no one cared, and only the hereditary militias fought on, grappling across their empires of rubble.
But there was nothing pointless about the bullets. As they passed the shell of the old pro-government radio station there was a single shot from the ground-floor window.
"Pull over, corporal! Get off the road!" Pistol in hand, Gomez wrenched the steering wheel from Arkady and slewed the jeep into the shelter of a derelict bus.
Kneeling beside the flattened rear tyres, Ryan watched the UN spotter plane circle overhead. He waited for Gomez to flush out the sniper, probably a Nationalist fanatic trying to avenge the death of a brother or cousin. The Nationalist militia were based at Beirut Airport, a wilderness of weed-grown concrete on which no plane had landed for ten years, and rarely ventured into the centre of the city.
If a cease-fire was ever to take hold it would be here, somewhere along the old Green Line that divided Beirut, in this no-man's-land between the main power bases – the Christians in north-east Beirut, the Nationalists and Fundamentalists in the south and west, the Royalists and Republicans in the south-east, with the International Brigade clinging to the fringes. But the real map of the city was endlessly redrawn by opportunist deals struck among the local commanders – a jeep bartered for a truckload of tomatoes, six rocket launchers for a video-recorder.
What ransom could buy a cease-fire?
* * *
"Wake up, Ryan! Let's move!" Gomez emerged from the radio station with his prisoner, a jittery twelve-year-old in a hand-me-down Nationalist uniform. Gomez held the boy by his matted hair, then flung him into the back of the jeep. "Ryan, keep an eye on this animal – he bites. We'll take him to interrogation."
"Right, captain. And if there's anything left we'll trade him for some new videos."
Hands bound, the boy knelt on the floor of the jeep, weeping openly from fear and rage. Jabbing him with his rifle stock, Ryan was surprised by his own emotions. For all his hopes of a cease-fire, he felt a reflex of real hate for this overgrown child. Hate was what kept the war going. Even Dr Edwards had been infected by it, and he wasn't alone. Ryan had seen the shining eyes of the UN observers as they photographed the latest atrocity victims, or debriefed the survivors of a cruel revenge attack, like prurient priests at confession. How could they put an end to the hate that was corrupting them all? Good God, he himself had begun to resent Angel Porrua for fighting with the Nationalists ...
* * *
That evening Ryan rested on the balcony of Aunt Vera's apartment overlooking the harbour in East Beirut. He watched the riding lights of the UN patrol craft out at sea, and thought about his plans for a cease-fire. Trying to forget the day's fighting and Angel's death, he listened to Louisa chattering in the kitchen over the sounds of pop music broadcast by a local radio station.
The balcony was virtually Ryan's bedroom – he slept there in a hammock shielded from public view by the washing line and the plywood hutch he had built as a boy for his Dutch rabbit. Ryan could easily have moved to any one of the dozen empty apartments in the building, but he liked the intimacy of family life. The two rooms and kitchen were the only home he had ever known.
A young couple in an apartment across the street had recently adopted an orphan boy, and the sounds of his crying reminded Ryan that he at least was related by blood to the members of his family. In Beirut such blood ties were rare. Few of the young women soldiers ever conceived, and most children were war-orphans, though it puzzled Ryan where all these youngsters came from – somehow a secret family life survived in the basements and shantytowns on the outskirts of the city.
"That's the Rentons' new little son." His sister strolled onto the balcony, brushing out the waist-long hair that spent its days in a military bun. "It's a pity he cries a lot."
"At least he laughs more than he cries." An intriguing thought occurred to Ryan. "Tell me, Louisa – will Lieutenant Valentina and I have a child?"
"A child? Did you hear that, Aunty? So what does Valentina think?"
"I've no idea. As it happens, I've never spoken to her."
"Well, dear, I think you should ask her. She might lose something of her elegant composure."
"Only for a few seconds. She's very regal."
"It only takes a few seconds to conceive a child. Or is she so special that she won't even spare you those few seconds?"
"She is very special."
"Who's this?" Aunt Vera hung their combat jackets over the balcony, gazing at them with almost maternal pride. "Are you talking about me, Ryan, or your sister?"
"Someone far more special," Louisa rejoined. "His dream woman."
"You two are my dream women."
This was literally the truth. The possibility that anything might happen to them appalled Ryan. In the street below the balcony a night-commando patrol had lined up and were checking their equipment – machine-pistols, grenades, packs loaded with booby-traps and detonators. They would crawl into the darkness of West Beirut, each a killing machine out to murder some aunt or sister on a balcony.
A UN medical orderly moved down the line, issuing morphine ampoules. For all the lives they saved, Ryan sometimes resented the blue helmets. They nursed the wounded, gave cash and comfort to the bereaved, arranged foster-parents for the orphans, but they were too nervous of taking sides. They ringed the city, preventing anyone from entering or leaving, and in a sense controlled everything that went on in Beirut. They could virtually bring the war to a halt, but Dr Edwards repeatedly told Ryan that any attempt by the peacekeeping force to live up to its name would lead the world's powers to intervene militarily, for fear of destabilising the whole Middle East. So the fighting went on.
The night-commandos moved away, six soldiers on either side of the street, heading towards the intermittent clatter of gunfire.
"They're off now," Aunt Vera said. "Wish them luck."
"Why?" Ryan asked quietly. "What for?"
"What do you mean? You're always trying to shock us, Ryan. Don't you want them to come back?"
"Of course. But why leave in the first place? They could stay here."
"That's crazy talk." His sister placed a hand on Ryan's forehead, feeling for a temperature. "You had a hard time in the Hilton, Arkady told me. Remember what we're fighting for."
"I'm trying. Today I helped to kill Angel Porrua. What was he fighting for?"
"Are you serious? We're fighting for what we believe."
"But nobody believes anything! Think about it, Louisa. The Royalists don't want the King, the Nationalists secretly hope for partition, the Republicans want to do a deal with the Crown Prince of Monaco, the Christians are mostly atheists, and the Fundamentalists can't agree on a single fundamental. We're fighting and dying for nothing."
"So?" Louisa pointed with her brush to the UN observers by their post. "That just leaves them. What do they believe in?"
"Peace. World harmony. An end to fighting everywhere."
"Then maybe you should join them."
"Yes ..." Ryan pushed aside his combat jacket and stared through the balcony railings. Each of the blue helmets was a pale lantern in the dusk. "Maybe we should all join the UN. Yes, Louisa, everyone should wear the blue helmet."
And so a dream was born.
* * *
During the next days Ryan began to explore this simple but revolutionary idea. Though gripped by the notion, he knew that it was difficult to put into practice. His sister was sceptical, and the fellow members of his platoon were merely baffled by the concept.
"I see what you're getting at," Arkady admitted as they shared a cigarette in the Green Line command bunker. "But if everyone joins the UN who will be left to do the fighting?"
Excerpted from War Fever by J. G. Ballard. Copyright © 1990 J. G. Ballard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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