Sunday, June 2, 2013


Today we are reviewing "Kattekoppen", a four page short story by Will Mackin, which was published in the Fiction section of The New Yorker (March 11, 2013).

It can be viewed here. I highly recommend that you take the few minutes to check it out.

HachiSnax note: Since making one of the poorest decisions of my life to move from NYC to an area of Upstate New York best known for ice cream turf wars, one thing that has helped maintain my sanity is my subscription to The New Yorker magazine. Their Fiction section features high quality tales on various themes and topics. This one in particular has stuck with me since I read it.

Set in present day Afghanistan and featuring a group from the infamous Seal Team Six, Kattekoppen is a little slice of military fiction uses symbolism and metaphor, rather than blazing gun muzzles, to tell its story. The story is told in the first person POV of one of the Seal Team members. It begins with the recruitment of a new howitzer liaison, and ends with an exhausting search for two Army servicemen injured and abducted during an ambush.

What shines in this short piece is how Will Mackin uses symbols and themes to dictate the mood and environment. What exactly do the titular Kattekoppen have to do with a howitzer battery blasting villages in Kabul? Well, first of all, what exactly is Kattekoppen? It is a European salmiak licorice treat with the 'texture of candy circus peanuts', in the shape of smiling cat heads. And apparently they taste like ammonia.


(I can say that I am somewhat intrigued to try these, even though three of my least favorite things to ingest are licorice, ammonia, and circus peanuts.)

Early in the story, the protagonist make a gruesome comparison between those happy candy faces and a past battle experience. Later, the candies strong ammonia-based content helps him deal with another, even more gruesome, experience. You really can't look back at those innocent kitty faces again without thinking back to those examples. And that's what this is about. The death of innocence. How war ruins normalcy. The smiles of childhood and the rictus of death.

Even though Levi is an Army member attached to the Seal Team, he serves as the moral anchor for the story. The methodical circles he draws out (to indicate targets for howitzer shells), represent the circular and cyclical aspects of life and routine. A huge, Dutch-born Army man, he is both his "mother's child" (as it is she that still sends his favorite childhood candy to him) and a father-to-be. Life goes in a circle and begins anew. Levi joins the group, leaves for home, and returns again.

Another device that sets the emotional tone of the base members is the usage of the works of Pieter Bruegel The Elder. The care packages Levi receives from home are adorned with stamps showcasing his works. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist references "Hunters in the Snow". The protagonist mentions the solidarity he feels with the hunters, but the landscape reflects the situtation as well; the hunters and dogs holding the strategic higher ground, and down in the valley, life goes on.

The next Bruegel painting used is "Landscape with Fall of Icarus". This coincides with the crash of a drone which might necessitate a 'brain recovery'. the comparison is relevant; the might and majesty of American technology comes crashing to the Earth; and life goes on, unfazed.

Finally, the story closes with the arrival of a package with a stamp feature detail from "The Triumph of Death". What a perfect metaphor for the military war machine. Death passes time on the hurdy-gurdy as his cart crushes those underneath. There is no malice, Death does not hate. But it is the nature of his being. The business of the military is also death, and business is so very good.

The writing in Kattekoppen is sharp and crisp; slang and acronyms are used effectively. The protagonist uses nicknames for persons to be kept at a distance; Levi is called by his name due to the respect he commands, yet his replacement is only referred to as 'The Mah Jongg Kid' until he proves his mettle. Even then he is only called "M.J.". The two lost soldiers as well are only referred to as 'Chin' and 'No Chin'; in these situations it doesn't pay to make close bonds.

If there is any gripe with the story, it occurs at the beginning, and I may be entirely in the wrong on this one. The protagonist is stating the clout that his unit commands, and outright says "As Seal Team Six,". Now, do members of this group refer to themselves by this designation? It seems a bit odd. No nickname or such? If you set the precedent as using jargon, any breach of the risks compromising the experience for the reader. No longer do they feel as though they are looking through someone's eyes if they see it is just the author pulling strings. But once again, since I have no point of reference to check the accuracy of the speech against, it may be a non-issue. And even if it is a slip, it is not so much that it takes away from the story.

Here's What It Is:
A very short, engaging piece of military fiction that you can finish in a trip to the throne. Plus it's free to read.

Final Score: 


The Cover:

No actual "cover" to speak of, but the piece begins with the picture at the top. A white background, akin to alabaster, going to purple in the corner, with some scattered pieces of Kattekoppen partially off-screen, and one centered. Simple, effective.

Cover Final Score: 


No comments:

Post a Comment