No Man’s Land | Granta | Book Review

Granta is a literary magazine and publisher in the United Kingdom whose mission centres on its “belief in the power and urgency of the story, both in fiction and non-fiction, and the story’s supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.” I have only just discovered Granta myself and I am hooked, it is like TIME or NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC with hints towards the original BENETON magazine, it is a modern magazine for the intelligencia that not only tells great tales, it also tells great journalism, it is a magazine where each issue is representative of a particular theme. In Granta 134 we have NO MAN’S LAND, the issue literally is about the place between warring factions and contains many items to read in the wonderful anthology. Allen and Unwin Book Publishers released Granta 134 as a book version and Kernel Deb reviews for us all, Granta 134 is no longer available via Allen and Unwin but I urge you to check out Granta online HERE. Enjoy Deb’s thoughts………all the best………JK.


Granta 134 Cover image



It is easy to be desensitised to the images and politics of war that pervade our newsfeeds and media. Transcending this familiarity, this edition of GRANTA: THE MAGAZINE OF NEW WRITING 134: NO MAN’S LAND explores the marginal spaces, lives and places that exist as a consequence of war. GRANTA started life as a Cambridge University student publication. It is now a literary quarterly with themed compendia starting in 1989. The aim of each collections is to illuminate real world issues. Typically each book has a diverse range of contributors including journalists, writers, academics and Nobel Laureates and NO MAN’S LAND is no exception. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction and photography are all featured in this poignant, affecting, and confronting anthology.

Propaganda has always accompanied war but in the modern era what happens on the ground can almost be irrelevant. In PROPAGLANDALANDS Peter Pomerantsev muses on the impact of modern media in warfare, focusing on the Russian/Ukrainian conflict. In modern warfare not everyone is a regular soldier, rather online Facebook activists organise everything from medical help to legal aid, coordinating million strong protests and crowdsourced funds from people overseas for boots, binoculars, uniforms, food and shelter. Internet forums, Twitter trolls, and high definition images from drones create an environment in which truth is replaced by endlessly reflecting stories where the enemy combatants seek footage to support their respective narratives and broadcast it via TV, radio and internet. With propaganda so dominant, “truth” with all its complexity is in no man’s land.


Granta 134 I Love You Red Ballon image


The FERRYMAN by Azam Ahmed is set on the banks of the Arghandab River where Pashtun farmers grow pomegranates. Malik with his long term driver Bilal travel the whole of south east Afghanistan carrying the bodies of the war dead for all sides: soldiers, police, Taliban and Americans. For Malik collecting the bodies is about respect: “The Quran tells us to look neither east nor west but to believe in Allah and spend of ourselves on the needy, whether orphans, wayfarers or captives of war.” As an elder in his community Malik has no illusions about the tightrope he treads as politicians curry favour with their communities by negotiating with both the Americans and the Taliban. He “does not do this work for the government, the Taliban, or even the men who [he] collects from the battlefield to return to their loved ones. For Malik his actions are done out of love for his God for if someone “puts things right, his reward is with Allah.”

Ahmed contrasts Malik with the other men in the warzone: Raheem Gul “a hard and bitter man whose compassion has been scrubbed away”; with the fighters who “know more than the taste of death….they have feasted on it and it has soured their ability to appreciate anything else;” the culturally insensitive Americans; and the obsequious politicians like Farhad who seek to appear useful to military friends. These men are not good men but they are survivors. They are men subject to the law of necessity. In contrast Malik is an outsider because it is costly to be a good man. For Malik, the constant exposure to the smell of rotting flesh means that cooked meat is no longer palatable. And although he is well regarded for his fairness, many in the community find him unusual. His wife tells him that he smells of death, and his friends snicker when she does not allow him to enter their home until he has shed the odour of the dead. Malik is almost in no man’s land.


Distorted Street and Reflective Granta 134 image


Sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience no man’s land first hand. In AFTERMATH Peregrine Hodson poignantly describes the strange dimension behind the façade of daily life, a dimension that can dislocate you from normal life: “A name, a word, a smell can be the entry to another dimension – an invisible space exactly parallel to everyday existence” and “it can take some time to get back.”

For survivors of war, the past can surface unpredictably. Wars may end, but human nature condemns us to remember even things we wish to forget. Everyone and everything can be marked by war. Memories of war conceal themselves in the details of daily life: a BBQ, a buzz of flies, the fragrance of an overripe melon, or a dead seal on the beach can bring back memories of a forgotten corpse. Even the ground, the humble surface trusted since childhood can change. No longer innocent it can conceal landmines, or the debris of past lives. In this way once owned fields literally become no man’s land.

The photographs of Lorenzo Meloni capturing Kobane in northern Syria after the 2014 siege by Islamic State Forces are a testament to human resilience. Even in the face of extreme deprivation they show people subsisting in no man’s land. In each, the colourful spark of human existence is a counterpoint to the grey debris, the broken concrete and rubble. Survival in their damaged community reflects the tenacity of a people loyal to their community. It is heart-rending.

What makes this GRANTA compilation moving is that it reveals the immense toll of war. Life carries on after war; even in NO MAN’S LAND humans and hope survive. Whilst I cannot expand on each and every contribution in this anthology, suffice to say that the editors have amalgamated a diverse range of material that provides a multifaceted, thoughtful and respectful examination of the consequences of conflict and its aftermath.


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Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science , black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.