Books You Really Should’ve Read by Now (number three million and ten): The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

You may have seen, in the wake of Donald Trump’s triumphant ascendance to the White House, that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have burst, beanstalk-like, through the roof. We know that there are people who think 1984 is just a rip off of Zemyatin’s We, but we like it and feel the more people who read it the better. Orwell is a hero and we need all of the heroes we can get at this point in the history of the world. When the current craze for Winston, Double Speak and the Thought Police has run its course, however, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, originally published in 1942, could well step into the breach, scratching the itch for literature that hints at the power of resistance, amongst other things.

Set in an unnamed European village (at the time, the good people of Denmark felt it resonated most closely with them, apparently), the novel opens moments after occupation (Steinbeck gives you enough loose history to know that he’s talking about what was then the world’s current predicament but as the Nazis go unnamed and tend to speak like dime store cowboys, with lots of “goddamns”, it’s easy to overlook the actual specifics of the history Steinbeck was railing against), with the local militia done away with and the Mayor, a terrific character called Orden, invited to remain in position as long as he does what he’s told.

“The people will not like it,” Orden said.

“Always the people! The people are disarmed. The people have no say.”

The main thrust of the novel centres on the way in which the locals quietly refuse to accede to the demands placed upon them by their captors and the frustrations of the captors themselves (who are principally there to ensure that the village’s coal output continues to fuel the war effort), seemingly caught up in the grinding machine of war, knowing full well that some of the positions required of them only exacerbate the problems they are trying to address.

“…I might agree with you but that would change nothing. The military, the political pattern I work in has certain tendencies which are invariable.”

Orden said, “And these tendencies and practices have been proven wrong in every single case since the beginning of the world.”

Lanser laughed bitterly. “I, an individual man with certain memories, might agree with you, might even add that one of the tendencies of the military mind and pattern is an inability to learn, an inability to see beyond the killing which is its job…”

Later a character called Corell, a local who sold his fellows down the river, highlights the paucity of the military imagination still further:

“[Orden] has the confidence of the people.”

“And when we shoot him, what then?”

“Then we have authority. Then rebellion will be broken. When we have killed the leaders, rebellion will be broken.”

Lanswer asked quizzically, “Do you really think so?”

And Corell answers, “It must be so.” It must be so because there is no alternative.  Meanwhile Dr Winter continues:

“They think that just because they have only one leader and one head, we are all like that. They know that ten heads lopped off will destroy them, but we are a free people; we have as many heads as we have people, and in a time of need leaders pop up amongst us like mushrooms.”

On its publication (slap bang in the middle of WWII), The Moon is Down was met by conflicting receptions. In Europe – in Denmark, as we said, but also in Paris and the Netherlands and even Russia and Germany – the book was met with fervid albeit mostly secret acclaim, with people risking death to read it, mimeographing copies and privately circulating them among like-minded resistance sorts. “…I think all invaded people want to resist,” a character called Dr Winter admits over 60 years before the invasion of Iraq. In the US, however, and to Steinbeck’s great consternation, it came in for a fair old bit of stick, particularly in regards to the ways in which Steinbeck showed ‘the enemy’. Now, as even a casual read of The Grapes of Wrath will show you, Steinbeck was a keen adept of social justice. He looked at the world, he thought about its woes, he tried to render solutions; most importantly, he saw its complexity. As a result, eschewing the kneejerk of more typical propaganda, Steinbeck allowed the enemy to be people too.

“Can you understand this – can you believe this? Just for a little while, can’t we forget this war? Just for a little while. Just for a little while , can’t we talk together like people – together?”

The rationale? If you see the enemy some inhuman machine bestriding Europe (or wherever) like a Collossus – well, you’re doing the enemy’s job for them… If you see the enemy as people, capable of both right and wrong, you can build hope, you can make plans, you can act – that’s certainly how people felt at the time, when The Moon is Down was first published.

These days, or for a long while at least, The Moon is Down hasn’t been thought of as top tier Steinbeck (that’s usually represented by Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat and East of Eden) but that in part comes from the modern mindset which is to ‘do’ writers (ie cross them off your mental list) by making your way through the big hits; the problem with this way of reading, though, is that you miss album tracks, those songs that would never have made the cut as a single but which tip an album from being simply quite good into being epic. We’d argue that The Moon is Down is the novel equivalent of a top album track. You read this, even with all of those other Steinbecks under your belt, you’ll see things you might otherwise have missed, not least the slightly surreal comedy of enemy troops rubbing alongside one another (which echoes Hans Fallada’s A Small Circus) or the creepy silence of the locals (which had this reader wondering if Michael Haneke had glimpsed The Moon is Down before embarking on his 2009 film, The White Ribbon). Clocking in as it does at just a little over 100 pages, this is a book you can read in an afternoon but we guarantee it’s a piece of work that will linger with you, in much the same way as Fred Uhlman’s Reunion did.

Any Cop?: We wouldn’t include it in our episodic Books You Should’ve Read by Now series for no reason now would we?

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