I recently re-read one of my favourite books, Iain M Banks’ masterpiece, Use of Weapons, and, as is often the case with a really great book, had a few insights that had previously eluded me. Please be aware that there are major spoilers below the read more tag. I mean seriously for the whole book.
Did I mention the spoilers? I wasn’t kidding!
I’ll start with one deft little touch; the symmetry near the beginning and end of the book. When Sma is picked up from the now-obsolete citadel at the start, she notes what a lovely day it is, and how inappropriate this seems to warfare, wondering if the fortress had seen battles on beautiful days like that:
Did the sky seem so limitless, the waters of the straits so fresh and clean, the flowers so bright and fragrant, when men fought and screamed, hacked and staggered and fell and watched their blood mat the grass?…Mists and dusk, rain and lowering clouds seemed the better background; clothes to cover the shame of battle.
In contrast, towards the end of the book, Zakalwe (Elethiomel) goes wandering about the mayhem during the storming of the citadel, ending up on the city walls somewhere, and the brilliant blue sky is remarked upon more than once, thus, essentially, answering Sma’s question:
He looked up at the sky, pale blue, and thought how beautiful it was, even through all this dust…
He also later refers to the “rabid blue sky”, and the “achingly blue sky”, as if somehow he is subconsciously aware of the inappropriateness of it.
The most interesting thing I noticed though concerns the key peripheral character of Livueta. One thing that struck me was that Elethiomel’s infamous chair was probably not just cleverly aimed at Zakalwe, but also Livueta as well. Of course, being Darkense’s sister, she would have been just as horrified and grief-stricken as Cheradenine, but we don’t think about her so much because it’s not her story, it’s about Zakalwe. The curious thing that I had failed to register before was that the first chair – the one which Cheradenine discovers Elethiomel and Darckense having sex on – was made by Livueta. It was something she had created in the carpentry class that had been the compromise she had managed to argue with her father after he refused her the “masculine” studies of metalwork that the two boys got to study.
Moreover, Cheradenine notes, nearly towards the end of his life, that Elethiomel had once declared that it was Livueta he was really interested in, not Darkense. Whilst I think this could easily have been another way to anger/hurt Cheradenine, I did wonder if there was an element of truth in it. Darkense is sweet, and sensitive, from what we see of her, but she is also easily frightened and I suspect easily led; certainly she is easily dominated by Elethiomel. All of which would probably have been fairly understandable given the upbringing of someone of her sex and class. Livueta, however, is not. She is strong and strong-willed; she is clearly the sensible one who mediates between the boy’s sometimes dangerous rivalry (tussling over the gun springs to mind) and who can act calmly in a crisis (such as when Elethiomel knocks Cheradenine out and seems about to let him drown; Darckense cries, but Livueta acts). Elethiomel is clearly attracted to strong, independent and intelligent women: he loves the spirited poet Shias Engin, and his attraction to Sma is both blatant (uncomfortably so) and alluded to several times. There’s a clue to his darker personality here; a current of resentment lurking beneath the surface, both at her apparent indifference towards him and her many other lovers: when she’s clearly entertaining someone else as she chats to Zakalwe on the phone at one point, he orders in a prostitute when the call ends, clearly annoyed. In a sense he respects strong women, but only in the same way that he regards a capable enemy. If they’re not interested, he reacts petulantly.
In this light, Elethiomel’s bone chair also becomes a double insult towards Livueta: Look at the chair I made, as well as perhaps revenge against the possibility that she had spurned him (I can’t imagine she would have accepted him, particularly if she knew about him and Darckense, as seems likely). It has of course been noted before that making Darkense’s remains into a chair was a quite literal objectification of a woman. As a final aside, Cheradenine is the one who cannot cope when he sees Elethiomel’s handiwork; Livueta, who, one would think, would surely love her sister as much if not more than Cheradenine, in the closeness sisters often have, did not take the easy way out (even as Cheradenine himself mocks it as “doing the honorable thing”). She lives with her pain, and her guilt – and a burning anger towards Elethiomel. But she does, interestingly, get on with a life of sorts.
It’s also interesting to see these three people’s differing responses to Elethiomel’s act: Cheradenine cannot cope, and kills himself. Elethiomel, who committed the act, clearly feels guilty for it, but at the end of the day he’s still the man who was able to make that decision in the first place; ruthless, wanting to win at all costs; possibly even psychopathic (he is clearly capable of sentiments like love, but empathises only very selectively, he’s impulsive, aggressive and can be hugely manipulative). Yet what does he do with his guilt? Carries on soldiering and committing morally ambiguous (at best) acts. I don’t buy for a minute the excuse that that’s all he’s capable of doing; it’s just what he’s most talented at. There’s plenty of things he could do that would serve as atonement; feed the homeless and hungry, use some of his accumulated wealth to fund charitable causes, hell, find homes and jobs for ex-soldiers fallen on hard times. You don’t need to be an expert to help. But he’s far too narcissistic and self-absorbed to do that; look at the only other career that he seriously considers and attempts; being a poet. It’s all a grand idea to him. This is where I come back to Livueta; after failing to catch Elethiomel and get revenge, she apparently spends her life looking after the poor and destitute, caring for the sick. Nothing grand, or spectacular, or anything other than a lot of heartache and drudgery; nothing she would be remembered for or be famous for (and, ironically enough, a very stereotypically feminine, nurturing role, after her earlier desire to be like the boys), but consistent good work. The sort of thing that doesn’t enter history books (unlike wars). Elethiomel is far too self-aggrandising to ever consider something so humble.
On a final note, it’s interesting to contrast this with Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who also committed its own act of great violence; this was, of course, not on a level at all with the chairmaking. It killed, but swiftly and without cruelty (unless you count making Sma and the bystanders watch), and it was in legitimate defence of another, if over-the-top. Perhaps crucially, its victims were not innocents, in the sense that Darckense was; indeed, its act also saves the innkeeper’s daughters, who certainly qualified as innocent victims. It also doesn’t hurt anyone else in the entire book; indeed, its final act in the story follows Livueta’s path, using its lethal talent to save someone’s life (shame it was that arsehole Elethiomel…). But then I have a bit of a soft spot for Skaffen-Amtiskaw, so perhaps I’m merely biased.