A hilarious anti-war novel

Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller | Derrick's Blog

This was originally written for my old Angelfire site in 2003 or 2004. It’s surprisingly a lot shorter and more on-topic than most of the other book reviews I managed to save during frantic cache and archive searches. Most of the edits I’ve made relate to my ninth grade English teacher, whom I still had a chip on my shoulder regarding when I wrote this.

5 stars

This book was awesome! I can’t believe I waited so long to read it, after my ninth grade English teacher never got around to it (as well as several other classics we were supposed to read but never did). And now I know to avoid the movie, which is said to be very dissimilar to the book, such as cutting out important scenes and characters, putting undue importance on minor characters, and inventing scenes that never even took place. It also doesn’t hurt matters any that it was written by a nice Jewish boy and the hero of the novel is a nice Armenian boy!

[June 2021 note: I saw the film not that long after writing this, and it was every ounce as dreadful as I’d been warned about. Had I not read the book, I would’ve had a hard time figuring out what was going on. Terrible, insulting screen adaptation which bears almost no similarity to the source material.]

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The title is the name of a military (in this case Air Force) rule that says you can’t get out of the service unless you’re crazy, but if you want to get out of service, you’re not crazy, because only a rational mind could come to the conclusion that it’s better to get out now while you’re still alive so you won’t possibly be killed on future missions. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The hero, Yossarian (we don’t get his first name), will do just about anything to get out of the military and go back home so he won’t have to fly any more missions and potentially get killed. He’s seen his friends and comrades die, such as Snowden (the flashbacks to whose death get longer and more graphic as the novel goes on), and the longer the war drags on and the more missions they’re ordered to fly, the more friends get killed in action.

To try to get out of flying more missions, he moves the bomb line on the map, constantly runs in and out of hospital with an alleged liver condition, turns back his flights on minor premises, such as not having a set of earphones, and goes on leave with his buddies to Rome. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions one must fly before going home, and eventually pushes them up to eighty.

A lot of this book gets lost in a film translation, like hilarious wordplay, nonsense of negatives, circular reasoning, and situations and sentences so absurd and ridiculous they’re funny. The characters are also outrageously funny, like the incompetent generals and colonels, Major Major (whose real name is Major Major Major and who was made a major just so people could call him Major Major Major Major), the chaplain who waffles back and forth on the very faith he’s supposed to be sharing with the young men in his outfit, Hungry Joe, Milo Minderbinder, Chief White Halfoat, Flume, and Doc Daneeka.

Reshuffles, Resignations and 'Catch 22' Politics | Ramblings of an Ordinary Man

One of the more absurdly funny parts of the book is when the powers that be in the bombing unit declare Daneeka to be dead because they think he was in a plane that drove into a mountain, even though he’s standing right there shouting at them that he’s not dead!

This is an anti-war novel as well as being satirical and funny. It doesn’t portray war as glamourous and heroic, but instead as Hell, something nobody wants to do, something the hero and most of his friends are trying to get out of every chance they can get. Even the generals and colonels at the top are portrayed as incompetent, absurd, and more concerned about things like parades and feathers in their caps than the lives of the young men they’re in charge of.

Even though it was written about the Italian theatre in WWII and came out in 1961, it’s held up very well and isn’t dated or boring. And I know the view I have of it now is probably vastly different than it would’ve been had I read the novel in ninth grade.

WeWriWa—A gradual journey

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts which, as you’ll see next week, are related to a new project I’m researching, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. Young doctor Caterina was apprehended here by the Nazis in November 1943, despite a priest invoking the rule of sanctuary. It took three people to haul her off of Dante’s empty tomb.

“Do you think we’re about to ascend into our own version of Paradise?” Eszter asked. “The past three weeks have been so nice, it feels like we’re already there in some ways.”

Caterina shook her head, still touching Dante. “It’s more like we’re ascending to higher terraces of Purgatory. Dante didn’t go through all those levels of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in one fell swoop. It was a gradual journey, with lessons to be learnt at each stage.”

Imre pulled out his golden pocket watch. “I’d love to spend the entire day exploring this place, but we don’t want to miss our train. We can always return to Firenze later and do everything we didn’t get around to this time around.”

Caterina swept her hands down the monument and put them back at her sides.

The ten lines end here. A few more to complete the scene follow.

“Yes, we sure can return. Unlike Dante, our exile isn’t forever.”

*********************

This tomb may finally be occupied soon, at least temporarily. Since Dante’s 700th death anniversary is in September, negotiations between Ravenna and Florence have been in the works regarding a transfer of the remains to mark this special occasion. Maybe someday his bones will return to his native city to stay.

WeWriWa—Surprising strength

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts which, as you’ll see in a few weeks, are related to a new project I’m researching, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. Young doctor Caterina was apprehended here by the Nazis in November 1943, despite a priest invoking the rule of sanctuary. It took three people to haul her off of Dante’s empty tomb.

Marie looked up at Dante, then behind the figure symbolizing Italy. “I can’t believe you squeezed behind this, Carine, nor that you managed to climb onto the top. I could never do that, emergency or not.”

“After everything we’ve been through, you doubt your own strength and ability? You were the one who climbed through a window after our escape. Had I had more strength, I would’ve climbed through that window with you.” Caterina reached up and caressed the marble figure. “We never know our own strength until that fateful moment. When it’s do or die, we surprise ourselves with what we’re capable of.”

WeWriWa—Dante’s empty tomb

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts which, as you’ll see in a few weeks, are related to a new project I’m researching, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. This was where young doctor Caterina was apprehended by the Nazis in November 1943, after attempting to hide by Dante’s empty tomb, a place she always felt safe.

They proceeded inside the basilica, and Caterina led the way to the tombs it was famous for. She had to explain who most of these Florentine luminaries were. The others were familiar with Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli, but not people like Ugo Foscolo, Leonardo Bruni, Eugenio Barsanti, and Vittorio Alfieri. Finally, they came face-to-face with Dante’s empty tomb, waiting for his bones for over a century.

On the left was a figure representing Italy, holding a scepter in her right hand and pointing up at Dante with her left arm. On the right was a figure representing Poetry, holding a crown of laurels in her right hand and prostrated, grief-stricken, over the sarcophagus. Dante himself sat atop the monument, his chin resting on his right hand.

“What does the inscription on top say?” Eszter asked. “I assume the Roman numeral on the bottom refers to either the year this was created or Dante’s lifespan.”

The nine lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“That Roman numeral is 1829, the year this tomb was built.  The words on top are a quote from The Divine Comedy, Canto Four of Inferno, ‘Onorate l’altissimo poeta,’ ‘Honor the most exalted poet.’” Caterina traced the engraved words. “Perhaps when Dante’s bones return from Ravenna, they’ll add the following line, ‘L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite,’ ‘His spirit, which had left us, returns.’ No matter where his bones are, I believe this is where his spirit resides. Souls aren’t bound by the location of their physical remains.”

***************

Eszter only asks about one Roman numeral because the ones on the left and right sides weren’t engraved there in 1945. They were only added in 1965, to mark Dante’s 700th birthday. Though I’m in no hurry to get old, I have every intention to be in Italy for his 800th birthday in 2065, when I’ll be 85.

WeWriWa—Approaching the Basilica di Santa Croce

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

While I’m doing preliminary research for a new project, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy, I’d like to switch to excerpts which are kind of related to its subject. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s now December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. This was where young doctor Caterina was apprehended by the Nazis in November 1943, after attempting to hide in a place she always felt safe.

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Júlia stopped in her tracks when the old stone building came into view. “Is that actually a Magen David on top? I’d expect to find a cross or angel on a church, particularly in such a Catholic country.”

“That’s from the nineteenth century, not the original design,” Caterina explained. “A Jewish architect designed the façade. He’s buried under the porch, since non-Christians can’t be buried inside. I like how there’s both a star and cross. It’s a symbol of how nicely we lived together in Italy for so many hundreds of years. We generally had good interfaith relations, unlike many other countries.”

Caterina approached the stone statue of Dante on the left side, atop a pillar flanked by lions and an eagle.

The ten lines end here. A few more to finish the scene follow.

The great poet’s likeness stared straight ahead and to his left, a very intent, serious expression on his face. He was cloaked in a cape, a crown of laurels on his head, with a book in his right hand, just as he was often depicted in artwork.

“Are you able to go inside?” Marie asked. “I don’t want you to relive bad memories if you’re not ready to revisit this place.”

“No, I wanted to come here before we left. It seems only right to return to the place where my exile began, and to leave voluntarily this time.”