The significance of names in Now We Shall Be Entirely Free should probably be noted. John Lacroix certainly makes one think of the French word for “Cross,” a reference to Jesus Christ and the crucifixion. A reference perhaps to a characters who is to take on the sins of others, a martyr? A sin-eater, someone who atones for the sins of others. A sin-eater is a person who consumes a ritual meal in order to spiritually take on the sins of a deceased person. The food was believed to absorb the sins of a recently dead person, thus absolving the soul of the person. Sin-eaters, as a consequence, carried the sins of all people whose sins they had eaten.
For readers of a certain age, the name Calley combined with the story of soldiers committing atrocities against civilians, cannot help but trigger associations to Lt. Calley, the American officer who led US troops during the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War.
The beginning of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free focuses on John Lacroix. The reader learns he is a British cavalry officer who was part of the army driven from Spain by the French and that he is sick and near death. Although it is not said directly, he is, at best, absent without leave. He has managed to get himself carted to his childhood home where he recovers thanks to the loyal housekeeper, Nell. Nell, who wonders, “…what the night had brought her and might bring her yet.” A foreshadowing that increases tension.
A fellow officer visits Lacroix and presses him about when he will rejoin the regiment. Lacroix puts him off and dreams of dead enemy soldiers he’s observed. “But something else must have come to him in his sleep that night, something more useful, for when he woke, an hour or so after dawn, it seemed to him he knew exactly what he was about to do…” Here again, is the busy omniscient narrator, who can not only report on a character’s dreams, but also make a statement about dreams the character doesn’t even remember.
Lacroix writes to his sister Lucy that he wishes to travel to northern ports, “a convalescent’s tour,” and could her husband help him find a ship? Nell asks if he is in trouble, and he replies with an enigmatic smile. Lacroix packs for the trip and includes the pistol he brought back from the war. “He did not dare to question what he was doing. Start to question it and he might find himself gazing through aa tear in the skin of the world. There was no other plan.” This “tear in the skin of the world” business seems like the narrator’s lyric voice.
Why is Lacroix AWOL?
Why has he decided to journey to the north?
These questions are not answered, but a new section introduces the character of Corporal Calley, a British soldier in Spain. He is witness at an inquest regarding atrocities committed by British troops against Spanish civilians at the village of Morales. He testifies as to his innocence and describes observing the murders and destruction, including seeing a British cavalry officer failing to stop his men from the assault. As if it were a secret, he confirms the identity of this officer—wearing the uniform of a Hussar—Lacroix’s regiment—without the name being shown to the reader.
However, at this point in the book, the curious reader begins to wonder if this derelict officer is John Lacroix.
After the inquest, an anonymous senior officer gives Calley his orders, albeit in indirect fashion. “…our Spanish friends are in a dither. They are striking attitudes. They say they would be better off with the French…the trust between us has suffered and must be recovered…There will be gifts of money, naturally, but something more than that is required…They want a man. A guilty man or one who can be taken as such.” Without naming John Lacroix directly, the senior officer makes it clear to Calley that his assignment is to find Lacroix and kill him in order to satisfy the Spanish. A scapegoat, a fall-guy, a sin-eater. The killing must be witnessed by a Spanish officer, Medina, who will accompany Calley. If Calley can perform this duty, he will be rewarded with a promotion.
Calley is dismissed and thinks” “…those fuckers could have hanged me! Then nearly laughed out loud at the pleasure of recalling the voice in the room, the power it had given him, and to him alone. Like a secret spring drunk from in darkness.” Calley is pleased at being given an important task, at escaping blame for his own (implied) crimes. Is it the narrator though who comments on his pleasure in poetic terms?
I think so. Calley is not poetic. He’s a psycho.
The reader’s wondering has become a sharper question: Is John Lacroix a villain who committed war crimes and is trying to escape justice? The answer is obscured by plenty of mixed messaging, both in the first section regarding Lacroix and in the one about Calley.
The story indicates with craft and subtlety that Calley is a kind of nemesis in pursuit of Lacroix, a man who may well be innocent.
On a personal note, I’m pleased that there were no unruly elements in today’s post. It was nice to be able to focus without interruption. The new security measures seem effective.