East of Coker by Andy Owen is a novel enfolded in myths drawn from middle eastern and western culture. Scheherazade and Sisyphus are used to make sense of a destabilized Iraq, even as the larger, personal myths of reason, civilization, and idealism break down.
Owen is a former member of the British Intelligence Corp. who served in Iraq from 2003-2005. He also served in Afghanistan in 2007. In East of Coker, he reflects themes from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker” which asserts
“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.”
As a reflective novel on the Iraq war, Andy Owen’s East of Coker well-delivers T.S. Eliot’s reminder of the recursive nature of human folly and tragedy. However, a striking aspect of the novel is the depiction of Iraqi characters who are central to the story. Owen skillfully presents the characters as central players while at the same time demonstrating that they are no more than an afterthought to the military personnel. While current identity politics often result in criticism and suspicion of an author’s motives to depict an indigenous culture, Owen’s success in drawing the dignity of his characters contributes to a vital transnational dialogue that is beginning to emerge. The dialogue between British and American military veterans, Iraqi civilians, refugees, writers, scholars, and activists of all perspectives.
Owen’s fiction achieves what Roy Scranton laments is missing from our popular trauma-hero stories of Iraq, that of “ the suffering of the very people whose land was occupied in our name.” Scranton admonishes readers who want war stories that soothe our troubled conscience and obscure “the connection between American audiences and the millions of Iraqi lives destroyed or shattered since 2003.” Owen’s East of Coker delivers the missing piece.
Andy Owen’s East of Coker does not obscure the suffering and shattered experiences of any side. When an Iraqi-Shia mother must make a decision to protect her children, she says of a relative “I would kill him first…” Here we are reminded of primal responses that emerge in desperate times. We also are able to understand the crucial human errors of an Iraqi man whose naïve friendliness and personal weaknesses puts himself and his community at risk. When a patrol is shattered by an Improvised Explosive Device, the narrator, a British soldier, describes the finality of loss of a comrade. He says, “All the things he worries about don’t matter now. They have melted into the air as the flesh that will have been stripped from his bones. All the memories he held within his head are gone. How many others who were kept alive in his head perished at that second, how many events and interactions were now as if they never happened?”
Iraqi civilians, British and U.S. military or civilian personnel, Arabs, and Arab-Westerners: these are individuals within an emerging subculture in search of dialogue. However, because of intense experiences during military action in Iraq for the past twenty-five years, those who were born in or served in Iraq share deeply connected knowledge of events that others on the middle eastern or western periphery only suspect or imagine.
I once met an Iraqi refugee who left Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Rumor said that he had donned an Iraqi army uniform and purposely surrendered to save himself from a worse fate of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He spent five years in a Saudi detention center in the open desert before being brought to St. Louis as a refugee to start a new life. I wonder after such disruption; how does one find relief from the past? After encountering or perpetrating such human tragedy, how do our military personnel and Iraqi civilians find relief? Owen’s East of Coker takes us one step further into the transnational dialogue that is beginning to emerge.