Chaitram Singh’s novel The February 23rd Coup explores the lives of the men behind the military interventions in Latin America in a way in which the textbooks and other military novels cannot.
Depicting the overflow of political and military frustrations through interactions between characters and their superiors, their government, relationships, loyalties, and their brothers-in-arms, the novel allows the reader to fully grasp the effects of military intervention on a national and individual level.
The element which fully sets the novel apart from other military dramatization fictions is the one which readers will find poignant and instantly recognizable: humanity.
The events of the novel are revealed through carefully structured scenes in which hardened military personnel interact both with their brothers and with civilians, allowing the characters to be fully realized as individuals who are, at times, strong and at others, vulnerable, instead of manifesting the military as a mechanized organ of order-keeping with an objective which is clear and unobjectionable.
Singh’s novel appropriately orchestrates its scenes in such a way that mirrors the orchestration of a military coup: with a slower and methodical pace in the beginning as the characters of the novel take measured steps toward their objectives – Colonel Taylor and the other officers in recruiting support for the coup and Erikson in his pursuit of the coveted Anita, already betrothed to another – then more hurriedly as the coup attempt unravels and Erikson realizes that the only way to keep Anita safe is to send her away.
The novel develops in a way which focuses less on the titular event, and instead more on the weight which the event has on the characters. This masterful narrative decision has the effect of putting the personal ambitions, fears, lusts, and desires at the forefront of the novel’s plot, emphasizing the multi-faceted nature of military interventions and the uncertainty which they can bring. This decision also has the effect of adding a human element to the theme of the soldier narrative which is missing from many other contemporary war novels.
There are a few scenes throughout the novel which serve to illustrate the weight of military service on the servicemen – particularly in areas with an uncooperative regime. As early as the third chapter, the novel introduces the reader to the effects which the weight of military service can have under corrupt regimes. The men are served a breakfast of eggs and meat, and the narrator points out that there is not bread or roti because of the ban on wheat flour.
The meager rations encourage a few of the soldiers to shoot a baboon, partly for sport and partly to break up the monotony of chicken and beef rations. The reader witnesses a conversation between Lieutenant Shah and Andrew Rambarran in which they discuss when the company will be leaving their current station. Lieutenant Shah asks Rambarran to try to get them out early, pleading “three months out here can drive a man to bestiality” to which Rambarran responds “the next baboon they bring in might be alive!” While obviously a joke between the two men, the exchange brings to light one of the difficulties the soldiers face while in the field: desire.
Sexual desire in the novel becomes complicated by a sense of emotional distance between the soldiers and the civilians of the novel. Later, when Rambarran and Lena are out to dinner, they discuss the “thieves [that] are running the country and offering socialist phrases to paper over the misery that they are inflicting on people.” When Andrew mentions societal collapse, it becomes clear that his anxiety around the Kabaka party has been fueling his thirst for Guinness, suggesting the pressures of the unstable government and military service are driving the onset of alcoholism.
That night, Lena tells him that she wishes he would tell her that he loves her when he wasn’t drunk. When he calls Lena and she tells him that she loves him, he remains silent before being admonished for not reciprocating. These short scenes represent some of the most poignant in the whole novel, and some of the most effective in illustrating the effects of military pressure on servicemen.
These scenes present real problems facing servicemen – alcoholism, detachment from civilian life, anxiety about the stability of society – which serve to impressively humanize the characters who in other novels may have been sterilized in their presentations.
Instead, Singh uses these scenes in his novel to capture the most important (yet hardly touched on) elements which go into coup-making.
Another humanizing scene occurs when Spooner and Rambarran meet outside of the Officers’ Club and discuss Colonel Taylor’s plans to meet with Captain McGowan. In this scene, we witness a very human, yet often overlooked, element of military service. Despite the military’s reliance on unity behind a purpose and objective, Singh reveals to us that this is not always the case, and that officers’ decisions to support or oppose a coup often have roots in their personal callings or philosophies. Ralph Spooner opens up willingly to detail upcoming plans to unite the officers behind the coup, despite knowing that Rambarran is against it. Andrew tells him that he is “rather open about this” and Spooner admits that he still hopes that Andrew will join him and the other officers.
In this way, Singh presents a notion to the reader which they may be unfamiliar with. Textbooks and scholarly journals often overlook individual apprehensions and the bonds of an individual’s loyalty when discussing pro- and anti-coup factions. Singh’s novel makes a case which is much more representative of reality: that oftentimes, an individual’s decision to support or oppose a coup is based not in a united military decision, but in reason which sometimes lies outside of the bonds of military brotherhood. The scene concludes with Rambarran and Spooner holding their gaze for a few moments, pleading that the other give in, and Colonel Taylor turning on to the gravel driveway.
The action of Singh’s novel and the actual coup does not take place until about the 20th chapter. Until then, he has thickened the plot, introducing the real ambitions and objectives (not all of which are military) of his characters. For Erikson, it is to protect Anita and her family, for Spooner and Taylor, it is to protect the people, for Andrew, it is a return to normalcy. Once the coup is underway, the narrative loses some of its dimensionality. This is partially understandable, considering action writing focuses on event exposition and not the narration of feeling which was so prominent in the first half. This is the only real place in which the novel might be said to suffer, but even this can be attributed to personal opinion. However the absence of success for Taylor and Erikson is appropriately tragic, and recreates the tension and confusion felt by the officers which was so expertly illustrated in earlier scenes.
The February 23rd Coup is effective in recreating the events which had profound impacts on Latin America, yet typically amounts to only a few sentences in textbooks and academic journals. The military language and historical accuracy put the novel on par with historical writing, yet the development and character exposition allow the reader a greater understanding of life in the service, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of Latin American military interventions. Singh shapes his characters into individuals who are complex and multi-faceted using only the rib of history, and presents a novel which humanizes military servicemen who elsewhere would be cast as one cog in an unfeeling and unitary-objective driven machine.