Ana Menendez’s new novel, The Last War, deals with Iraq, infidelity, self-deception, and exile. The Rumpus’s Amy Letter reviews the book, and interviews the author in this literary extravaganza we call The Rumpus Original Combo.
The Rumpus Review of The Last War
Ana Menendez’s new novel, The Last War, follows the path laid by her previous books into new, darker territory. Her first book, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, gave us a glimpse into the Cuban exile community, treating its characters with care while revealing their vulnerabilities: the lies exiles tell themselves and others, the tangled webs of memory and desire complicated by regret and frustration. Menendez took these themes deeper in Loving Che, in which an exile discovers notes and photos that document her mother’s torrid love affair with Che Guevara.
The Last War is also about exile and memory, desire and regret and frustration. It also centers around photographs, and a letter with words as destructive as C4—powerful enough to blast apart a city, or a life. In this novel Menendez shows that “the exile experience” is not a function of ethnicity or nationality, but of choices—often bad choices—and our perverse but entirely human need to hold onto the ugliness of our pasts.
Who among us has not played this stubborn pantomime of grief? Away from home, alone, we stroll the streets, keeping our sour thoughts to ourselves. We write angsty notes, drink too much, delight too much in our drinking too much. It is self-indulgent and ridiculous, but we persist. I myself spent months in Arkansas writing bad poetry in imitation of Ovid’s Tristia, the poems he wrote at the Black Sea while in exile from Rome. I spent one drunken night in Reading, England recopying Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” with a Sharpie on the walls of my room—yes, you see, because my room there was like his prison.
In The Last War, an American war photographer waits in a comfortable apartment in Istanbul for permission to enter Iraq. Her husband, a reporter, is already there. Wonderboy and Flash sound like the names of a cartoon crime-fighting duo, but they are merely a modern power couple: Wonderboy is the straight-laced and hawkish reporter addicted to war; Flash is the artistic and ambivalent photographer who married him and wound up living in his world. In time, Flash’s life on the Bosporus becomes as much an exile as Ovid’s life on the Black Sea, a sad purgatory soaked in bad wine. But she is not exiled because of war or politics or nationality—Flash’s exile comes from within.
The extent of her alienation only becomes clear in the novel’s long and breathtaking epilogue—it is a daring move, an epilogue that through careful revelation of detail recasts the entire novel, and especially its main character, in a murkier, more troubling light. The Last War haunted me for days after I read it, details that seemed small in the initial reading (she does not notice, until told, that her doorman lives in a windowless closet) suddenly taking on a fresh, bitter taste. Events that once evoked pity for the main character (her upstairs neighbors make noise at night to wake her on purpose) came to seem like just deserts. And tics in the telling (an obsession with drinking coffee, drinking red wine) fell into relief as a sort of self-mocking, the narrator revealing the absurdity of her own suffering through repetition.