The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli is on the Best Fiction of 2010 list on our APL Recommends. The title refers to the lotus eaters who, in the Odyssey, give Odysseus's men the narcotic fruit that makes them lose all desire to return home. In this Viet Nam war novel, the addiction is taking photographs, regardless of the risk, to expose the human toll inflicted by war. A few days after I finished reading the book, two award-winning war photographers, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros died after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Libya. The journalists had been near the front lines covering rebels who were trying to oust snipers in Misrata.
One of the Soli’s models for the photojournalists in the novel is the real-live photojournalist Dickey Chapelle, the first American female war correspondent to die in action. Dickey Chapelle was also the first journalist to report that American troops were actually in combat in Vietnam, not just advising. Chapelle in her 1962 book, What's a Woman Doing Here?, writes of her work as a correspondent: “They were stories, yes. Telling them fed me, yes. But their substance was not innocent. I had become an interpreter of violence.” She was killed in action by a landmine on November 4, 1965 at Chu Lai. In the rescue helicopter on the way to the base hospital, Dickey Chapelle looked into the face of a marine, "I guess it was bound to happen," she said.
Like Chapelle, Helen Adams, the female photojournalist in The Lotus Eaters, is ambivalent about her moral position as a war journalist. She wonders whether those who represent war — through reporting or photography — are doing anything but replicating the violence they depict. Does war journalism change public opinion, or does it lead, as one photojournalist in the novel asks, to “a steady loss of impact until violence becomes meaningless”? I have read about several photojouralists who have left the profession becasue of the danger, and gotten involved in humanitarian work in the same countries where they had taken photographs.
The Lotus Eaters is also a love story and a well researched exploration of Vietnam between 1963 and 1975.