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Manifestations of Truth in How to Tell a War Story by Tim O’ Brien Essay

How to Tell a War Story by Tim O’ Brien has taken into account various thematic expression and he uses an unusual style to narrate these thematic expression. It a balance-mix of story and reflective essay. O ‘Brien major concern remain the reality of truth. He illustrates various manifestations of truth and manifests that imagination is the major tool to locate the truth. In addition to that he develops a criterion for narrating a war story. “O’Brien shares the criteria with which the writer or teller and the reader or listener must be concerned by giving an extended definition of what a war story is or is not.

The chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” focuses most extensively on the features that might be found in a “true” war tale. “(Calloway, 1995) So story is multifaceted and its narrative technique is advanced as well unique. Tim O’ Brien has critically evaluated the criterion for writing a true war story. O’Brien demonstrates that memory and reminiscence are transient in nature and one can tell a story purely based on his memory. Memory is always prone to mental faculty of creating fiction. Sometime the character or the narrator admits the elements of fictionality in a true war story but mostly it goes unnoticed and unobserved.

Same is the case with How to Tell a War Story as Mitchell Sanders admits to Tim O Brien (the protagonist) that although most of his tale is based on fact but there are elements of fiction. Hew says, “’Last night, man,'” Sanders states, “‘I had to make up a few things . . . The glee club. There wasn’t any glee club . . . No opera,'” either (O’ Brien, 1998). “‘But,'” he adds, “‘it’s still true'” (O’ Brien, 1998). This is not distortion of truth but it is the limited nature of memory to recall things in proper order with minute details that urges human faculties to invent certain details.

Furthermore, plain truth is not interesting enough to captivate the attention of the reader and amuse. In a Vietnam War story there can be pathos and miseries, deaths and destruction, but there is nothing pure to tell in the form of a story. O Brien himself explain this; “I think exercising the imagination is the main of finding the truth…” (Naparsteck, 1991, p. 10) So memories are true and well as invention simultaneously. In “Things They Carried”, collection short stories from which this story was taken, O’ Brien he acts as the narrator.

So readers suppose that he himself was veteran of the war and observed everything on his own but his are not the first hand account of these tales. They are told by various veterans of wars and were later crafted by O’Brien. So both veterans and the writers has invented certain situations and mingled it with the real story. O’Brien says that it is not unethical or wrong to develop a story in this way. He says, ““You’d feel cheated if it never happened. ”(O’ Brien). A story is developed on its own and follows a natural pattern. In this way, O’Brien implies that truth distorts when it passes through the mental processes.

Various pre-conceived notions, past experiences, prejudices and men’s inventive powers cast its own impression on it. But it is natural phenomenon. O’Brien explains this in the story; In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again.

The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. (O’Brien, 1998) Readers accept this balance mix-up of reality and invention but O’Brien, however, does not allow his readers to take these things for granted and inquires the whole idea of memoirs, recollections, and the short capability of memory to communicate the reality with accuracy. As far as the narrative structure is concerned, O’Brien himself calls it a mix of essay and fiction.

In an interview to Naparsteck (1991) he says that, “In a way, it’s part essay and a part fiction but in a way it’s neither…To me, it has singleness or unity to it. Rather than part things this and part things that, it’s all those things together. ”(p. 9) This manifests his idea of truth as a whole. He does not differentiate genuine reality from perceived reality and considers them conflation of each other and they as whole constitute the truth. Unquestionably, truth and fabrication is another theme that Tim O Brien takes into consideration in the story.

He is of the view that in narrating a war story, untruth is not conflicting with truth. They are the facets of a single reality. One is real and other is inventive but both are genuine. During the war, truth is unclear and mostly uncertain. It takes varies semblances band is manifested in various contradictory forms. So both true and inventive part of the story seems contradictory but in reality, they are same and equivalent. This paradoxical manifestation of truth is symbolized by the death Curt Lemon. O’Brien as narrator is familiar with the situation in which Curt was killed.

He was shot dead by a 105mm round while “he was playing catch with Rat Kiley”. But as O’Brien recollect this in his mind; he perceives that Curt was killed by daylight. This narration is different from the first one. But none is untrue. 105 round was tool but sunlight also played a major role in his death. Sunlight is also chief cause thus. In this way, O’Brien differentiates between the reality that took place and the reality that appears to take place. No account is untrue but both a different manifestation of same reality i. e. one is real and other is perceived as real.

Tim Obrien does not use proper literary devices to convey this dichotomy like Golding does in “Lord of The Flies” where he use symbol of fire and convey its paradoxical nature. Conventionally, fire refers to destruction and damage but Golding uses it as a rescue symbol when boys trapped in an island use fire to get attention of the passing by ship and in the last, they are saved by the aero- plane that noticed the fire signaling rescue. But mostly, it is not possible to attach two opposite meaning to a single word as beautifully done by Golding in the novel. O’ Brien attempts the same.

For example, he says, “it is safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true,” he generate a contradiction but it is not a single word or a symbols that he utilizes to communicate the paradox. It is the whole context that helps him make this statement. Stephen Kaplan sums up this thematic expression of reality in his book; Understanding Tim O’Brien. He says, “[O’Brien] completely destroys the fine line dividing fact from fiction and tries to show … that fiction (or the imagined world) can often be truer, especially in the case of Vietnam, than fact.

O’ Bren plays with truth in How to Tell a War Story and sometimes fabricates it. The chief purpose is to highlight the paradox of truth and to demonstrate its various facets and manifestations. He leaves it to the readers to discern between genuine truth and perceived truth. The writer’s use of a narrator Tim O’ Brien in this collection of short stories is at the same time appealing as well as disturbing. The confusion deepens when it told by the author that the narrator is a middle aged man telling the stories about the Vietnam War.

The use of a narrator is interesting as it forces the readers to think that the story is basically rooted in some real life experiences. It also helps in joining together the disjointed elements in the tales. This tool also helps the writer to play and employ some untruths and marvelous things without suffering from the fear of being questioned for their authenticity. The readers suffer from the problem that is the narrator is just playing the role of a mouth piece for the writer or is he an independent character.

However, by using this device the writer is able to convey the message to the readers that what is discussed in the story as truth is somewhat similar to what actually happened during the war. If the reader accepts that the narrator is reliable and he is telling the truth than he faced a dilemma. As in the beginning of the stories the narrator tells that he is a real person and going to tell real stories and in the end he tells them that everything that he has just told is just falsehood.

The author might be using this illusion to convey the readers a way in which a war story should be told and the basic truths that these war stories carries. He might also be trying to make a point that the story is basically true and logical though it may not have actually happened in the Vietnam War. The construction of this collection of stories is not following the traditional way of telling the stories. There are stories within a story that are linked very beautifully together in a novel way. Each story is basically an endeavor, on the part of narrator, to make a point clear.

In order to explain or discuss a thought or experience the narrator start telling another story. These stories, are however, not linked in the traditional way. On finishing the book the reader is made to realize the truth as an organic whole, in a strange way, and not in the ordinary way as is the truth in conveyed to them. In this style of story telling the writer is not bound to follow the chronological flow of time. He is free to roam about according to his will. He can discus the realities and the sequence of the happening of events according to how he deems it right and not by the traditional way of doing it.

The writer is basically of the view that the ‘war stories’ need to present the ‘true illustration’ and it need not to indulge in ‘analysis’ so it is important that the short stories should remain true to the reality and the long story or the parent-story need not to be something actually happened in reality. Rosemary Kings explain this phenomenon in this way; O’Brien’s word play in the title hinges on the definition of “true,” a word he uses alternately throughout the story to mean either factually accurate, or something higher and nobler.

He does this through three embedded narratives: Mitchell Sanders’s narration of Curt Lemon’s death; the narrator’s description of hearing Sanders’s story; and Tim O’Brien’s commentary on how to tell a true war story. (n1) Each narrator claims his story is an authentic retelling of events as they occurred in Vietnam, asserting the historicity of their narratives. (King, 1999) The structure of the book is such that the chapters and the short stories are basically there to help the readers understand the real story, the real and the tangible truth. These are basically the ‘things’ carried by the parent story.

The comments of the narrator helps the reader understand the organic wholeness of the story just as the chapters in the long story are connected together by the connecting views and ideas of the author thrown here and there in the long story. Rosemary King also highlights the importance of title of the story; “O’Brien’s title delivers punch not only through the conflated definition of true but also through the distinction of what makes a war story “true. ” He underscores the importance of manipulating what actually happened to get at the essence of truth. ”

Above-mentioned discussion and supported arguments and evidence clearly manifest that O’Brien has successfully asserted that truth has paradoxical nature and it can be conveyed as a whole i. e. a balance mix- of what happened and what seems to happen. In reality this pradox dissolved in a complete whole. He further illustrated that human mental processes modifies the objective reality. His own description of reality from the subjective point of view of the narrators in the story is a skillful representation of this phenomenon. Thus his story is a successful example of metafiction.


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