Figure One. On display in the photograph are examples of modern prosthetic legs. Taken with permission at the National Army Museum, London.
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be an object involved in the treatment of an injured soldier? In Harry Parker’s recent novel, Anatomy of a Soldier, he tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, who is injured by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) whilst deployed with the military to serve in a war zone. As a result of these injuries, Tom, or army number BA5799 as he is first introduced, suffers irreparable trauma to both legs and undergoes a double amputation. Parker details Tom’s medical journey through the narrative viewpoints of forty five anthropomorphised objects, from battlefield injury to rehabilitation and recovery.
Not all the objects involved in the narration are part of Tom’s medical treatment and recovery. Other characters interact with objects, such as fake trainers and a rug; non-medical objects are significant to Tom’s veteran life, for example a mirror and pint glass; equipment such as a day sack and map narrate Tom’s military service; a bullet and bomb address the destruction of war. For this discussion I am focusing on only those nine key objects involved directly in Tom’s medical journey and rehabilitation, as shown in Figure One.
These objects are involved in the procedures used to treat Tom’s injuries and they guide us through the medical journey of an injured soldier. Harry Parker is himself a double amputee and veteran of the British Army. He wrote the novel as semi-autobiographical, having been through similar circumstances to the protagonist. This reinforces the novel’s status as an exploration of the lived experience of an individual sustaining traumatic injury.
The novel begins by drawing attention to the tourniquet, an unassuming object which stems the flow of blood from the body. This comparatively basic but crucial piece of equipment is the first step in providing medical intervention on the battlefield. Parker introduces us to this object, located in the pocket of Tom’s combat trousers, and at the critical moment when Tom is injured the tourniquet provides aid. The tourniquet asserts, “I was there when no one came and he was alone and couldn’t move. I was still there as fear and pathetic hopelessness gripped BA5799” (Parker, 2017, p.1). The tourniquet is a companion to Tom, kept close to his body until needed. The impression given here is of something, or rather it seems someone, faithful and supportive. The anthropomorphisation of the object as Tom’s comforting friend gives the impression of a personal bond between the two.
This relationship between object and protagonist is deepened when the breathing tube and catheter detail their intimate relationships with Tom. The breathing tube describes how it takes responsibility for Tom’s breathing (Parker, 2017, p.2) and has awareness of Tom’s injuries, some of which are sensitive, such as to Tom’s groin and testicle (Parker, 2017, p.23). Similarly, the catheter describes entering Tom’s body, “I went into you too. I fed into your penis and up your urethra to your bladder” (Parker, 2017, p. 125). The breathing tube and catheter have knowledge of Tom’s internally damaged and vulnerable body. This goes beyond the usual boundaries of intimacy and suggests a fusing of the objects with the internal workings of Tom’s body; there is a unique closeness experienced with objects of medical treatment.
These intimate relationships are juxtaposed against our own lack of insight into Tom as a character, at this early point in the novel. Throughout the above referenced sections, Tom is identified only as BA5799, which reinforces that we do not know him personally. We are introduced to BA5799’s bodily identity through the perspectives of the objects that help administer his medical treatment; his identity is reconstructed through the medical technologies used in the attempt to put his physical body back together. Centralising objects reflects the unconscious body as being subject to the will of the medical process; the objects are anthropomorphised, whilst Tom is dehumanised in his unconscious state and in a sense, literally objectified. It is as if object and human body have swapped places.
This post attempts to give an introductory insight into Parker’s novel, as a presentation of an alternative medical discourse, which puts a humanistic rather than scientific focus on the medical experience. This is the embodied experience of medicine and it is important for us to consider how people make sense of the medical procedures and treatments they undergo.
In next month’s post, I will explore the relationship between Tom and the objects of his rehabilitation, namely his prosthetic legs. Tom regains consciousness and begins to reclaim autonomy over his body during rehabilitation. This brings a further dynamic to the relationship between man and technology, as inanimate objects become a part of the technologised human body.
Parker, H., 2016. Anatomy of a Soldier. London: Faber & Faber.