Humanity in the War

This is the paragraph where Ajay Shah recounted his alarmingly dangerous experience to finally board a ship for a survival chance, no matter how slim, at the vast sea. It has a conversational tone with strong emotions and sheer contrast in tension between the beginning and the end of this paragraph.

Just as I slipped below the surface, I felt a powerful arm wrap around my chest. This is it, I thought; any second, I thought I would feel teeth dig into my flesh. Instead of pulling me down, the arm hauled me back up to the surface. I ended up aboard the Sir Wilfred Grenfell, an ex-Canadian Coast Guard cutter. I tried to talk, to apologize for not having any money, to explain that I could work for my passage, do anything they needed. The crewman just smiled, “Hold on,” he said to me, “we’re about to get under way.” I could feel the deck vibrate then lurch as we moved. (73, World War Z)

I love the use of “slipped” in the beginning sentence. It not only refers to the fact that Ajay lost his balance and footing, but also that he was sinking without attracting anyone else’s attention – like sands slip away. No one noticed him, and therefore no one was coming to him except for those blood-craving ghouls under the water. The repetition of “I thought” is an indication of how overwhelmed and horrified Ajay was, by the expectations of what would come next. The image of “teeth digging into my flesh” fully occupied his mind, but it ends right there. There are not further descriptions of the pain and struggling inflicted when attacked by a zombie. Maybe Ajay was too afraid to imagine or elaborate on that possibility, or maybe he was just too tired – he had an extremely long day on the fine line between life and death, and he didn’t even try to fight back when the arm wrapped around him. More importantly, the repetition of “I think” places the emphasis on dramatizing the situational irony here – readers all know that he survived, and what happened next is definitely different from what was expected.


The arm actually “hauled him up” instead of “pulling him down”. The antithesis here creates a light and quick rhythm, corresponding to the joy of being saved and given a chance of survival after all the suffering, both mental and physical. But Ajay realized he didn’t have anything to pay back, so he tried “to talk”, “to apologize”, and “to explain”. The paralleled structure builds up the tension again, and the phrases grow longer and longer in this sentence, as they show how urgent Ajay was begging the rescuer: he was trying to be more persuasive, show what he can offer, and the use of “any”, “anything” in this line demonstrates the desperation.

And here comes the word that only showed up once in this book so far: smile. It’s absolutely stunning. World War Z is brutal and this entire book is about death, pain, struggle, and helplessness, and a smile is so rare and precious among this negativity. The crewman didn’t ask for anything, but offered a soothing smile to Ajay – it is in sheer contrast with the intensity in the previous lines, and it is the shine of humanity. There is hope because there are selfless people who offer help and unite the rest of us, even though we don’t know his name. Finally, the cutter lurched as it started to move, and it is a figuration of the unknown that Ajay was about to face: unsteady, uncertain and uncontrolled, but he had someone on his side.


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