Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Wartime Lies, Begley focuses on the relation of truth and falsehood. Deception is a means of survival with tortuous consequences. As a child, Maciek learns to tell lies with such commitment that they become the truth of his existence. Ironically, this way of surviving depends on the eradication of his true identity. To distance himself from the emotional impact of his earlier experiences, and yet to understand it, the adult Maciek turns to literature, where he finds that civil expression can overlie the horror of his past and mitigate the mental turmoil it has caused. Literature also raises questions concerning pity, heroism, and justice, which lie at the heart of his childhood memories. Tania has taught him that the Germans cannot bear to feel pity, just as Dante in the Inferno has no patience with it. Yet the adult Maciek, seeing parallels between Dante’s damned and the Jews of Poland, feels that the innocent and frightened deserve pity. Without the capacity to feel pity, one becomes like the Germans, barbaric. Dante admires the defiant ones among the damned, but those who endure in silence also deserve admiration, Maciek believes. Dante’s inferno reminds him of the cellars, the suffering, the darkness of the cities lit by fires. He sees Poland’s inferno as a metaphor of the relationship between man and God, but he cannot see justice in Jewish persecution.

Though this is a tale of great suffering and loss, detachment prevails throughout the narrative and suggests that within the narrator lies an emotional void that cannot be filled by any new emotions. His survival has depended on detaching himself emotionally from not only the truth but also from his own suffering and that of others. His new name, identity, and life underscore the discontinuity with which he is left and the irony of his triumph. Because Tania succeeds in saving Maciek and herself, this is a tale of triumph, but too many Jews have perished for Maciek to feel anything but guilt and self-loathing. The memories that continue to haunt him suggest a psychological devastation that will be with him always, and the questions concerning justice, pity, and heroism will remain unanswered.