Letters About Literature National Winners 2004
National Winner, Level 3: Hannah Catabia
November 28, 2003
Herr Erich Maria Remarque
Casa Monta Tabor
Porto Ronco, Spain
I deeply admire you, Sir, and I've learned incredible lessons from your work, but I feel compelled to say that you ruined Harry for me.
Not too long after I first read All Quiet on the Western Front, I had to audition the St. Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry V. Harry was an exceptional leader, able to rally his desolate troops against the well-prepared French (who have been enemies of both the Germans and the British at one time or another, it must be said). Just before his success on the battlefield, he gave a glorious, patriotic speech and manifested whole-hearted confidence in his men. How hard I practiced that speech, but somehow I could never get it right! I tried everything within my power to grasp the role. There is an overpass down the street from my apartment. The night before my audition, I stood under it in order to practice. Overhead was a bombardment of engine noise that fell to where I stood in the damp, wearing short sleeves in January. I truly wanted some way to understand the desperation and fear that fell cold upon Henry and his men.
Truth, as in the St. Crispin's Day Speech, is invariably difficult to define. I am reminded of your character, Professor Kantorek, the once-beloved high school teacher of Paul Baumer and his comrades. The professor's blind advocacy of nationalism and war jolted me, especially as most of the boys he recruited to the military ended up dying in battle. Kantorek revealed a side of reality that I had never questioned before. Is there really such a thing as a just war? Honestly, I've always considered peace and negotiation to be constructive, but I also know that these aspirations are sometimes beyond the horizon of reason and truth. Hope always lies somewhere in between the regions of peace and war, a type of political purgatory where all the dissenters (such as me) are banished.
So every time I tried to incite the invisible troops that lined the walls of the overpass, I failed miserably. War, I had learned from All Quiet, was too dismal to be associated proudly with St. Crispin's Day. No matter how hard I worked, I just could not be Harry. I mangled the entire speech, turning it into self-reproachful, hypocritical musing in which I did not display confidence in my troops. Instead, I pitifully tried to convince myself that I was not immoral for practically sentencing my men to death for the sake of a fleeting thing called honor. I was Hamlet, stranded on a mountaintop with the wrong script in my hands. Somewhere, in the darkness behind me, I heard murmurs of the St. Crispin's Day speech spoke lusciously, proudly, in a way that lured all of my shadow soldiers over to the other side of the hollow. But the voice was not Harry's. Instead, it sounded eerily like Kantorek's.
It is probably in my youth that I first developed my fascination for war. Of course, I was an uneducated an idealist as any child. I would write third-grade essays about how horrible fighting was, then after school I would play war games with my friends. There was something inevitably exciting and heroic about the thought of combat that I could not resist as a child. Often, I took a manic pleasure in tumbling into the dirt, wrestling my opponent into autumn leaves that crunched like skeletons beneath us. I'd morph into Harry for a moment, forcing my enemy into the dust, fighting for my very life. And then I'd get hungry and simply decide to go home for dinner, leaving my muddy boots at the doorway. I never even considered the possibility that I might not be there to wear them in the future.
In many ways, I am still in political purgatory, and I cannot always separate truth from fallacy whenever war clouds the imminent future. But if nothing else, I've at least scaled the overpass, which I walk along sometimes at night in order to clear my head. If I pause and listen closely enough, I can still hear Kantorek stealing Harry's lines in the depths beneath me, always gathering a shadowy crowd, but that's of little consequence. By now, I, too, have memorized the St. Crispin's Day speech. I know what the words mean, and I know where their true place is: not in the mouth of Kantorek.