The last enemy

In antiquity, autobiographical works were typically entitled ‘apologia’, purporting to be self-justification rather than self-documentation

Richard Hillary was born in Sydney, Australia in 1919. He was sent, at the earliest permissible age, to boarding school in England. He was independent and assertive; many found him to be arrogant and provocative. But, his good looks, athleticism and willy self reliance ensured his success and he secured a place at Oxford. He left his course in his second year to take up a short commission with the RAF as a fighter pilot.

The Last Enemy is his account of learning to fly, his wartime experiences and the treatment of his horrific burns. Published in 1942, it has been hailed as one of the classic texts of World War Two.

Sebastian Faulks writes in the introduction:

“[Hillary’s] descriptions of flying and of life on the station are lucid, swift and exciting; they are of a different calibre from the hundreds of R.A.F. memoirs that were published after the war: they aspire to, and attain, the status of literature. One of the most memorable aspects of the book is the sonorous but unsentimental way in which he records death, one by one of his friends…Richard Hillary captured in his cool prose the attitudes of the men who fought in those crucial weeks; the exact match between the charm of his style and the global importance of the battle is what enabled The Last Enemy to touch a public nerve.” (xi)

In searching for a definition of truth and authenticity, his book puts a marker in the ground. It is a blunt, articulate first-hand account. It was written as soon as he was physically able to put pen to paper (he found writing very difficult with his clawed, burned hands). Time was not allowed to erode the immediacy and accuracy of his memories.

Hillary relates his self-absorbed and disconnected attitude towards the war throughout the book, but then two encounters lead to a damascene revalation: one is a meeting with an old friend- a former pacifist who mourns the fact that he turned his back on the need to combat the great evil sweeping the world; the other is an act of heroism as he pulls a mortally injured woman from a blitzed house in London. He credits the woman with her ‘cow eyes’ and gentle sympathy (she looks at his burned face and comments “I see they got you too”) with his conversion to the enormity of the cause. Hillary writes:

“That that woman should die was an enormity so great that it was terrifying in its implications, in lifting the veil on possibilities of thought so far beyond the grasp of the human mind. It was not just the German bombs, or the German Air Force, or even the German mentality, but a feeling of the very essence of anti life that no words could convey. This is what I had been cursing- in part, for I had recognized in that moment what it was that Peter and the others had instantly recognized as evil and to be destroyed utterly. I saw now that it was not crime; it was Evil itself-something of which until then I had not even sensed the existence. And it was in the end, at bottom, myself against which I had raged, myself I had cursed. With awful clarity I saw myself as I was. Great God, that I could have been so arrogant!” (174)

But, both the meeting with his friend and the rescue of the woman, are fiction (Hillary once described the work as a ‘novel’). Hillary was in New York when he wrote the book, not the bombed streets of London. How does this affect the ‘truthfulness’ of the memory? What must literally happen, and what falls under the ancients’ tradition of writing for self justification? Faulks argues that The Last Enemy acquired the aura of a book that ‘says something vital, whose importance goes beyond what it literally describes.’

Hillary draws a conclusion in his final chapter that he must write a story that records the lost lives of his friends to earn his “right to the fellowship with the dead.”

He underwent further operations by the great plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. After a slow and painful recovery, he begged to be allowed to return to flying. He was transfered to a bomber training unit in the bleak wilds of Scotland, and despite the great unease from both his commanding officers and his friends and family, he took to the skies again.

He was killed at the age of 23, when his plane crashed in a night training exercise.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
-1 Corinthians 15:26

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