Letters From The Fire / September 29, 2018
Letters from the Fire is an e-mail Novel
Letters from the Fire is an e-mail novel, a modern twist on the classic epistolary form. Set during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the novel explores a deepening relationship between two ‘enemies’, a Serb woman living in the city of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and an American man from Florida, during seven weeks of war.
The two protagonists, Sasha and Dave, first clash on an Internet writers’ newsgroup, then take their discussion of the developing war into a private e-mail correspondence exploring the ramifications of the conflict between their two countries, as well as a growing and disturbing attraction between them. Sasha and Dave fall in love despite themselves, finding something rare and precious in the wreckage left behind by the warplanes of the bombing campaign.
Powerful and moving, the love story of two ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances unfolds against the panorama of a human tragedy. Ex-newspaperman Dave’s ideas and opinions are tested against Sasha’s eyewitness accounts of the war zone as he finds both his intellect and his affections engaged by a spirited, articulate and outspoken girl from a different world. She finds his strength of character and carefully concealed sentimental streak equally appealing. They begin making tentative plans for After The War, when the world might allow them to make a life together, but events overtake them.
Historically accurate, Letters from the Fire is an indictment of war and hatred and a testimony to the transcendent power of love.
Questions for Discussion
- The authors dedicated their novel to ‘victims of war: human beings, human constructs, human ideals’. How do you think these three ‘victims’ have been dealt with in the book?
- Bridges are a strong theme in the novel. The physical bridges in Sasha’s home town and their destruction coincide with the building of other bridges, emotional and intellectual, between two kindred spirits connected by far more things than they are separated by. Speaking of the destruction of her city’s bridges, and trying to explain to Dave why this upsets her so, Sasha says that ‘…it isn’t the bridges, it’s what they stand for that matters.’ Discuss how what bridges ‘stand for’ has shaped this story.
- Letters from the Fire is built upon what is still a very new communications medium. How do you think the Internet has affected human relationships? In your own experience or opinion, does the lack of initial physical reaction to another human being (their mannerisms, their appearance) help or hinder the development of a connection between two people? Would that initial ‘connection’ made purely on a mental/emotional plane deepen a relationship at the start, or make it shallower? Do you think that Sasha and Dave’s relationship would have gone as far as it did if it had developed in ‘real space/time’?
- Dave initially espouses the standpoint of ‘something had to be done (at all costs)’ while Sasha, on the receiving end of that something, maintains that doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing at all. Do you think either of them is right, or does the truth lie somewhere in between?
- ‘It doesn’t matter WHAT you love or WHO you love. It’s THAT you love, that you are able to give that, which matters,’ Sasha says in one of her messages. How do you interpret this statement? Do you agree with it?
- One of Dave and Sasha’s discussions involves an exchange about whether people ought to be treated as they wish to be treated, or as the observer believes they ought to be treated (the crocodile worshipper theme). How do you interpret this particular conundrum?
- Do you think war can ever be ‘justified’? If so, on what grounds? If war is seen as a ‘judgment’, what would constitute the ‘trial’, and what would be the ‘evidence’? Do you think that a whole nation or a whole people can be held accountable for the alleged sins of its leader(s)? How do you think this attitude has shaped the most recent of the world’s wars, the Gulf War in Iraq and the Yugoslavian conflict?
- ‘See, for me, people are made of the things and places that are a part of them. Everything you do, everything you touch, changes you in some small way. Touch a tree and you walk away a different person from the one you would have been if you had just walked past it without looking at it at all. Cross a bridge, and you are different to the person who stayed behind on the far shore.’ Do you agree with Sasha’s philosophy? How, and to what extent, do you think that you have been shaped by your world?
- Refugees are a tragic fact of war. How do you think living through a conflict has shaped Sasha’s attitude to refugees from both sides? How is Dave’s attitude affected?
- The first Gulf War was the first wholly televised war in human history. The war in Yugoslavia has been said to have been fought in the media and more importantly on the Internet to an unprecendented degree. During an armed conflict of this nature, do you think that the public will ever get a balanced and frank account of events? Do you think that one side in any conflict is ever justified in calling the other side’s media coverage ‘propaganda’ without accepting this epithet at least to some degree for itself?
- How important is history? In the novel, Sasha invokes historical roots of the unfolding war; Dave implies that he mistrusts anything which requires explanation dating from the middle ages. How do you think their world views colour their attitudes to the war? As a corollary of this, consider the kaleidoscope of shifting alliances fifty years ago and at the turn of the millennium. The NATO alliance contains countries which were enemies in World War II, and Serbia/Yugoslavia had fought in both world wars on the side of some of the NATO countries and against others. How do you think shifting alliances colour the way that ordinary people in Serbia look at the war?
- Consider the words of the John Lennon song with which Sasha disagrees: ‘Imagine if there were no countries… nothing to live or die for’. Do you agree or disagree with Sasha’s interpretation of that song?